All posts by MuniCourts

Prisoners in US suffering dementia may hit 200,000 within the next decade – many won’t even know why they are behind bars

by Rachel Lopez, Drexel University

Prison officials are bracing for a silver tsunami that will flood correctional facilities with elderly and often vulnerable prisoners.

Like the rest of the United States population, the prison population is aging fast. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2030, people over the age of 55 will account for almost one-third of all incarcerated people. That means that American prisons will house upward of 400,000 older prisoners, about the same population of New Orleans, representing a near doubling of the number of older prisoners currently behind bars.

Caring for these elderly prisoners suffering from physical and mental frailty will create significant challenges for prisons.

As an expert in human rights law and a former commissioner on Pennsylvania’s Sentencing Commission, I am concerned about the burden this places on already overstretched prisons, but also the cost to human dignity. Furthermore, my research suggests that indefinitely detaining someone who does not understand why may violate the United States Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

An inmate at California Men’s Colony prison. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

 

Dying behind bars

America’s large aging U.S. prison population is the direct result of the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s, when three-strike laws and mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole condemned many to die behind bars.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons spends approximately US$881 million per year caring for the elderly in their custody. My home state of Pennsylvania spends $3.2 million on medication for this population each month.

An 82-year-old prisoner being assisted on the breakfast line at California Men’s Colony prison. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Part of what is driving this cost is the expense of caring for those with serious medical conditions, especially those with dementia. Last year, the federal government opened its first unit dedicated solely to caring for prisoners with dementia. The unit is staffed by nurses, correctional officers and other prisoners who receive special training to help them care for those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The challenge of caring for this population will only compound as it grows. If researchers’ estimates are correct, by the end of this decade around 70,341 to 211,020 of the elderly prison population will have dementia. Most will be unable to perform the regular activities of daily life and will eventually require around-the-clock nursing care.

Unusual cruelty

Finances are not the only concern regarding this elderly incarcerated population. There is also the cost to human dignity.

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution upholds this principle by outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. To justify punishment, the Eighth Amendment requires that there be some penological purpose, such as retribution, rehabilitation or deterrence.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court cases suggest there is no such justification for indefinitely incarcerating those with dementia. In February 2019, the court in Madison v. Alabama – which centered around a prisoner who developed severe dementia after a series of strokes – held that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who cannot rationally understand their death sentence because it serves has no retributive purpose.

A prisoner in the hospice wing of California Medical Facility. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The reasoning behind this ruling is centuries old. Dating back to the United States’ founding, those with limited mental capacity were entitled to special protections in the criminal context.

Sir William Blackstone, a renowned 18th-century English jurist whose commentaries on English common law deeply influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States, believed it was cruel and unusual to execute someone who lacked mental capacity.

As the U.S. Supreme Court would later echo, Blackstone reasoned that “furiosus solo furore punitur” – madness is its own punishment. Living with dementia can also feel like a punishment. People with dementia suffer gradual, irreversible loss of memory, judgment, daily functioning and health.

The effects of the disease are compounded by incarceration. Because of their profound impairments, people with dementia are sometimes unable to understand that they are in a prison, much less why. Elderly prisoners with dementia are also at an increased risk of victimization, sexual assault and bullying from other prisoners.

Additionally, because they struggle to understand and follow prison rules, they are also more likely to be subjected to harsh punishment while incarcerated. Some are punished with solitary confinement, which further degrades their physical and mental health.

Life and death

While Madison vs. Alabama addressed death sentences, a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case provides precedent for the conclusion that the justices’ holding could be extended to life without the possibility of parole. In Miller v. Alabama, the court compared a life sentence to a death sentence, as it “forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.”

In other words, both sentences result in the condemned person having no ability to redeem themselves. While the court had suggested in previously cases that the death penalty is in a category all its own, in Miller it suggested that life sentences “share some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences.”

Furthermore, when it comes to prisoners with dementia, life sentences cannot be justified as a deterrence. Simply put, how can someone adjust their behavior to avoid punishment, if they do not understand that the punishment is a consequence of their own bad acts?

Forcing those who cannot understand their punishment to live the remainder of their days behind bars appears to be exactly the type of excessive and cruel punishment that the Eighth Amendment was meant to protect against. As the elderly prison population balloons, society may need to reconsider the real world consequences of life without parole sentences.

In my view, the cost, both to taxpayers and to our basic human dignity, is too high.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Trump rally in Tulsa, a day after Juneteenth, awakens memories of 1921 racist massacre

Editorial note by Randall Hill, Court.rchp.com

The opening scene of HBO's "Watchmen" begins with a powerful depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Last year, when "Watchmen" aired, many people were shocked to learn for the first time this atrocity actually happened.

In honor of Juneteenth, HBO has made all nine episodes of "Watchmen" available to stream for free through Sunday on HBO.com and Free On Demand.


by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta

For only the second time in a century, the world’s attention is focused on Tulsa, Okla. You would be forgiven for thinking Tulsa is a sleepy town “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” in the words of the musical Oklahoma!.

But Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history, and a long, arduous process of reconciliation over the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was jarred by President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally there since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The city is on edge. Emotions are raw. There’s anxiety about a spike in coronavirus cases, but lurking even deeper in the collective psyche is a fear that history could repeat itself. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters will gather close to a neighbourhood still reckoning with a white invasion that claimed hundreds of Black lives.

In this June 15, 2020, photo, people walk past a Black Wall Street mural in the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla. Dozens of blocks of Black-owned businesses were destroyed by a white mob in deadly race riots nearly a century ago. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

A Trump rally near a site of a race massacre during a global pandemic already sounded like a recipe for a dangerous social experiment. But then there was the matter of timing. The rally was to be held on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday commemorating the day slaves in the western portion of the Confederacy finally gained their freedom.

Normally, Juneteenth in Tulsa is one big party, the rare event that brings white and Black Oklahomans together. But fears about spreading COVID-19 led organizers to cancel the event. Then came the protests over the murder of George Floyd. During those demonstrations in Tulsa, a truck ran through a blockade of traffic, causing one demonstrator to fall from a bridge. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

COVID-19 cases surging

To make a bad situation even worse, the city is witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have acknowledged that the increase in new cases, mixed with close to 20,000 people packed into an arena, is “a perfect storm” that could fuel a super-spreader event.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks during a news conference at police headquarters. (Matt Barnard/Tulsa World via AP)

Some of Mayor G.T. Bynum’s biggest supporters began pleading with him to cancel the event. Bynum is of that rarest of species, a Republican who has staked part of his political legacy on combating racism. It was Bynum who shocked the white establishment by ordering an investigation into potential mass grave sites from the 1921 massacre, even as many Republicans accused him of opening old wounds.

Faced with the prospect of provoking a fight with Trump, however, Bynum equivocated. Bynum found himself under attack from former friends and allies who urged him to do something. Then, on June 13, the Trump campaign announced that it would change the date of the rally to June 20 “out of respect” for Juneteenth. It was a small victory for protesters, but some were further enraged by Bynum’s moral equivalence between the protests over Floyd’s murder and a Trump campaign rally.

Reminiscent of another mayor

The mayor’s impotence has also brought back memories of 1921. The mayor then, T.D. Evans, found himself unable — or unwilling — to stand between an angry white mob ginned up over fears of a “Black uprising” and a Black community demanding racial equality.

Evans saw the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma politics and quietly voiced his displeasure. As the Tulsa Tribune cultivated white paranoia about a Black invasion of white Tulsa, Evans, and many like him, did little. “Despite warnings from Blacks and whites that trouble was brewing,” Tulsa Word reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote in a book about the massacre, “(Evans) remained mostly silent.”

In this 1921 file image provided by the Greenwood Cultural Center, Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre. (Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World via AP)

One historical parallel with 1921 stands out above the rest: the power and influence of “fake news” to mobilize alienated voters.

While much has been made of a revolution of social media and YouTube to undercut the gatekeepers of traditional media, a false news article was the most proximate cause of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

The Tulsa Tribune published an article on May 30, 1921, with an unproven allegation that a Black man, Dick Rowland, had tried to rape a white woman in a downtown elevator. The dog-whistle came through loud and clear. No evidence was presented and charges were later dropped. But the news was enough to set off calls for a lynching of Rowland.

Hundreds killed

A mob formed around the Tulsa courthouse. The Tribune had been stoking fears of a “Black uprising” for months, running stories of race mixing, jazz and interracial dancing at Black road houses.

A few Blacks armed themselves and tried to stop the lynching. The sight of armed Blacks made the white mob direct its fury at a bigger target — the Black section of town, Greenwood.

By the dawn of June 1, 1921, Greenwood lay in ruins, with hundreds dead and thousands interned in camps. The devastation did not come as a surprise to those who had watched the rise of xenophobia during the First World War and the second coming of the KKK, an organization that received a boost after the screening of the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 at the White House.

Trump reaches into his suit jacket to read remarks following the events in Charlottesville, Va. He defended white supremacists following a Unite the Right rally that turned violent. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Tulsa, and the nation, had been primed for racial violence by a white supremacist media and presidential administration. Many well-intentioned people stood idly by, hoping the trouble would soon blow over. It did not.

Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. During the spring of 1921, Tulsa got the tragedy. With Trump rallying tens of thousands of his supporters near Greenwood amid a deadly pandemic, the best we can hope for this time around is farce.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them.

Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.

by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.

The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.

I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.

My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.

My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.

In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.

Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.

A Long History of Spying

In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.

The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.

In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.

Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”

A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.

Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.

It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.

Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)

In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.

But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.

And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.

In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.

“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.

Nagging Suspicions

I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.

In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.

It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.

In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.

A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.

I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”

My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.

I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.

Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.

I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.

He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.

“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.

The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.

“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.

“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”

I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.

But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.

I took side streets home.

Why Were You Following Me?

After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.

I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?

Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.

Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.

Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.

Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.

In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.

In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.

The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.

My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.

In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.

And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.

The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.

A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”

We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.

After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

Star player who expressed interest in going to an HBCU may shake up how athletes select a college

by Jasmine Harris, Ursinus College

Mikey Williams, one of the nation’s best 15-year-old basketball players, sent shockwaves through the sports world when he tweeted that he might go to a historically black college or university, also known as an HBCU. Here, Jasmine Harris, a researcher who studies student-athletes, elaborates on why Williams’ potential decision is generating so much interest.

Mikey Williams dribbles through a crowd during the Pangos All-American Camp on June 2, 2019 at Cerritos College in Norwalk, CA. 

 

1. What’s the big deal?

There is a lot of money at stake. Before he became an NBA star, Zion Williamson was worth an estimated US$5 million per year for Duke University. That figure is based on media exposure, marketing deals and ticket sales.

Williamson is not unique. Many a college sports star have made a lot of money for their college. Convincing a talented high school player to commit to a particular school is one of the most critical aspects of recruitment. A star player can help a school generate lots of revenue and expand their sports program. This is why I believe that college sports programs are more like businesses than part of a school.

HBCUs are historically underfunded. For that reason, HBCUs can’t recruit as competitively as some of their Division I peers. Without the funds to build programs and modern facilities capable to showcase star players in their quest to go pro, HBCUs are unlikely landing spots for the country’s most talented student athletes.

When HBCUs can’t attract the best young players, they miss out on the larger shares of NCAA revenue they could get from televised games, March Madness tournament participation and apparel and ticket sales. An HBCU has never won an NCAA national championship in football or men’s basketball. Instead, HBCUs compete in their own championship tournaments for the semi-segregated Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Atlantic Conference (SWAC). One player may not change the entire system, but one player can make a big difference for an individual school.

2. Is there anything special about the timing?

The convergence of increased discontent regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, news coverage of videos that show the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the persistence of racist rhetoric, has created a perfect storm to re-envision which college a young black student should choose. College men’s basketball teams are made up of 56% black players student-athletes, but only about half of those athletes graduate from college after six years, in some cases that number is well below 50%. Less than 2% will be drafted into professional leagues.

These are black kids who are grappling in real time with their own racial identities, their place in the social hierarchy, and the systemic disadvantages of race in the U.S.

As the NCAA tries to maintain institutional status quo where student-athletes are prevented from being paid for sports participation, while players advocate for their right to generate their own revenue, black student-athletes like Williams are recognizing their role in the financial health of the schools for which they choose to play. As Williams stated on Instagram, “WE ARE THE REASON THAT THESE SCHOOLS HAVE SUCH BIG NAMES AND SUCH GOOD HISTORY … But in the end what do we get out of it?”

Committing to play for an HBCU isn’t just a neutral, short-term decision in this case. The potential for change instigated as a result of a top player rejecting a predominantly white college in favor of an HBCU is particularly significant, specifically in 2020 as black colleges struggle to stay afloat, but also more possible than ever.

3. Can just one player shake things up?

In the short term, probably not. However, Williams has the potential to influence other players in the future – and that may be more important. Colleges and universities depend heavily on revenue from men’s basketball and football games to maintain stable operating budgets across the entire institution. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how precarious the financial relationship is between sports and Division I programs. Forfeiting 2020 revenue means these schools will have even thinner margins, and reduced budgets in the years immediately after the pandemic. This will create greater opportunity for a reorganization of the Division I sports hierarchy.

If Williams were to attend an HBCU, his presence would immediately improve the school’s bargaining position for television contracts and marketing deals. It could also lead to an increase in ticket sales and attract additional potential star players.

His decision could ultimately change how star high school athletes choose which college to attend. And if more choose HBCUs, these players have the power to shift a longstanding system which benefits predominantly white schools, to one where black colleges can become more competitive in sports.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

‘This Is No Game’: Trump Considering Insurrection Act to Deploy Military to US City Streets as Protests Continue

"Trump is rejecting the rule of law and proposing military action that is antithetical to basic premises of the American experiment."

by Eoin Higgins

President Donald Trump on Monday evening threatened to use the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy the U.S. military to the nation's city streets if unrest over the killing of George Floyd did not calm. 

"Trump is rejecting the rule of law and proposing military action that is antithetical to basic premises of the American experiment," tweeted The Nation's John Nichols. "He thinks he is playing a political game. This is no game."

The president, who spent part of the weekend hidden in a bunker at the White House as protests raged outside the building, announced during a speech at the Rose Garden Monday that he was preparing to send military troops to cities around the nation. 

President Donald Trump walks from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church after a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

"If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," said Trump.

The president also announced he was immediately deploying "thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers" to Washington—the only place in the country the president can legally deploy the army without restriction.

As NBC News reported:

To activate the military to operate in the U.S., Trump would have to invoke the 213-year-old Insurrection Act, which four people familiar with the decision had told NBC News he planned to do.

[…]

Trump’s decision on whether to invoke the act, adopted in 1807, to deploy troops has come as his frustrations mount over the protests that have followed the death of Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody last week in Minneapolis. The people familiar with his decision said Trump was angry Sunday night at the destruction some protestors caused in Washington, particularly the vandalization of national monuments.

After his speech, Trump walked to St. John's Church. Police cleared the way for the president to walk to the photo-op with force, using batons, tear gas, and pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square on the way to the church.

CNN reports that Trump used tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters for a photo op, after being upset about media coverage about him being rushed to a bunker. pic.twitter.com/LN0tA51gjA

The national protest movement that erupted after Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police officers on May 25 has spread across the entire country as long-simmering rage over police brutality, racism, and civilian killings have combined with the economic and social crises of the coronavirus pandemic to propel tens and hundreds of thousands of people into the nation's city streets night after night.

"Abuse of power and systemic racism are a deadly combination, particularly for people of color and Indigenous Peoples, who are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by weaponized policing around the world—destroying lives, families, and communities, denying people their basic humanity and dignity, and violating their rights," the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) said in a statement of solidarity with the protest movement.

As Common Dreams reported, police around the country have constantly attacked protesters, escalating the demonstrations into violence and injuring and arresting hundreds of people. At least two people have died. 

"People are angry," Amnesty International USA End Gun Violence campaign manager Ernest Coverson said in a statement. "People are exhausted."

"They have a right to take to the streets and peacefully protest—everyone has that right," Coverson continued. "The rights of the many to take to the streets and demand justice and comprehensive police reform cannot be trampled upon, for any reason."

The White House has been a regular target of Washington protesters, who have gathered at or near it nightly, at times destroying or damaging property around the building.

The president's response to the protest movement has focused primarily on supporting the police. While Trump has mentioned George Floyd and expressed rare sympathy for a black victim of police abuse, the main focus of the president's remarks over the past week have been on supporting law enforcement as officers beat, pepper spray, and launch tear gas at demonstrators. 

"Sending in the military to respond to a peaceful revolution has been the only action this administration has taken," said Coverson.


Republished with permission under license from CommonDreams.

Police officers accused of brutal violence often have a history of complaints by citizens

Jill McCorkel, Villanova University

As protests against police violence and racism continue in cities throughout the U.S., the public is learning that several of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville share a history of complaints by citizens of brutality or misconduct.

Decades of research on police shootings and brutality reveal that officers with a history of shooting civilians, for example, are much more likely to do so in the future compared to other officers.

Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest in Lafayette Square Park on May 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

 

A similar pattern holds for misconduct complaints. Officers who are the subject of previous civilian complaints – regardless of whether those complaints are for excessive force, verbal abuse or unlawful searches – pose a higher risk of engaging in serious misconduct in the future.

A study published in the American Economic Journal reviewed 50,000 allegations of officer misconduct in Chicago and found that officers with extensive complaint histories were disproportionately more likely to be named subjects in civil rights lawsuits with extensive claims and large settlement payouts.

In spite of this research, many law enforcement agencies not only fail to adequately investigate misconduct allegations, they rarely sustain citizen complaints. Disciplinary sanctions are few and reserved for the most egregious cases.

Protesters went to the home of the Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who is now charged with George Floyd’s death.

Complaints, lawsuits – but few consequences

Derek Chauvin, the ex-officer who has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd, is no stranger to situations in which deadly force has been deployed.

During a 2006 roadside stop, Chauvin was among six officers who, in just four seconds, fired 43 rounds into a truck driven by a man wanted for questioning in a domestic assault. The man, Wayne Reyes, who police said aimed a sawed-off shotgun at them, died at the scene. The police department never acknowledged which officers had fired their guns and a grand jury convened by prosecutors did not indict any of the officers.

Chauvin is also the subject of at least 18 separate misconduct complaints and was involved in two additional shooting incidents. According to The Associated Press, 16 of the complaints were “closed with no discipline” and two letters of reprimand were issued for Chauvin related to the other cases.

Tou Thao, one of three Minneapolis officers at the scene as Floyd pleaded for his life, is named in a 2017 civil rights lawsuit against the department. Lamar Ferguson, the plaintiff, said he was walking home with his pregnant girlfriend when Thao and another officer stopped him without cause, handcuffed him and proceeded to kick, punch and knee him with such force that his teeth shattered.

The case was settled by the city for US$25,000, with the officers and the city declaring no liability, but it is not known if Thao was disciplined by the department.

In Louisville, Kentucky, at least three of the officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant at her home – allowing them to use a battering ram to open her door – had previously been sanctioned for violating department policies.

One of the officers, Brett Hankison, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit alleging, according to news reports, harassing suspects and planting drugs on them. He has denied the charges in a response to the lawsuit.

Another officer in the Taylor case, Myles Cosgrove, was sued for excessive force in 2006 by a man whom he shot seven times in the course of a routine traffic stop. The judge dismissed the case. Cosgrove had been put on paid administrative leave as his role in the shooting was investigated by his department, and returned to the department after the investigation closed.

Protesters took to the street the day after a grand jury declined to indict Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann for the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

Patterns of misconduct and abuse

I am a scholar of law and the criminal justice system. In my work on wrongful conviction cases in Philadelphia, I regularly encounter patterns of police misconduct including witness intimidation, evidence tampering and coercion. It is often the same officers engaging in the same kinds of misconduct and abuse across multiple cases.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that across the nation fewer than one in 12 complaints of police misconduct result in any kind of disciplinary action.

And then there is the problem of “gypsy cops” – a derogatory ethnic slur used in law enforcement circles to refer to officers who are fired for serious misconduct from one department only to be rehired by another one.

Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, resigned before he was fired from his previous department after they deemed him unfit to serve. A grand jury did not indict Loehmann for the killing, but he was fired by the Cleveland Division of Police after they found he had not disclosed the reason for leaving his previous job.

In the largest study of police hiring, researchers concluded that rehired officers, who make up roughly 3% of the police force, present a serious threat to communities because of their propensity to re-offend, if they had engaged in misconduct before.

These officers, wrote the study’s authors, “are more likely … to be fired from their next job or to receive a complaint for a ‘moral character violation.’”

The Newark model

The Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended the creation of a national database to identify officers whose law enforcement licenses were revoked due to misconduct. The database that currently exists, the National Decertification Index, is limited, given state level variation in reporting requirements and decertification processes.

Analysts agree that this is a useful step, but it does not address underlying organizational and institutional sources of violence, discrimination and misconduct.

For example, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice found that the department had a lengthy history of excessive force, unconstitutional stop and searches, racial discrimination and racial bias.

The report noted that the use of force was often punitive and retaliatory and that “the overwhelming majority of force – almost 90% – is used against African Americans.”

One promising solution might be the creation of independent civilian review boards that are able to conduct their own investigations and impose disciplinary measures.

In Newark, New Jersey, the board can issue subpoenas, hold hearings and investigate misconduct.

Research at the national level suggests that jurisdictions with citizen review boards uphold more excessive force complaints than jurisdictions that rely on internal mechanisms.

But historically, the work of civilian review boards has been undercut by limitations on resources and authority. Promising models, including the one in Newark, are frequently the target of lawsuits and harassment by police unions, who say that such boards undermine the police department’s internal disciplinary procedures.

In the case of civilian review board in the Newark, the board largely prevailed in the aftermath of the police union lawsuit. The court ruling restored the board’s ability to investigate police misconduct – but it made the board’s disciplinary recommendations nonbinding.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

George Floyd Protests and The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Sunday was the sixth day of mass protest. Hundreds of protests, with violent outbursts in many major cities, have occurred. At least 40 cities have imposed curfews and National Guard members have been activated in 15 states and Washington, DC. At least five people have been kill and property damage will most likely total in the hundreds of millions.

As I watched protests, looting, burning of buildings, and the chaos erupting all across American in response to the murder of George Floyd by four police thugs, I couldn't help but think about a movie from 1973, "The Spook Who Sat by the Door". During the movie, which is based on a book by the same name, Dan Freeman, a black man pretends to be an Uncle Tom* in order to become the first CIA officer. Freeman then uses his specialized CIA training in gathering intelligence, political subversion, and guerrilla warfare to provide tactical training to street gang members to plot a Black American Revolution involving organized chaos sparked by police brutality. Obviously, the George Floyd protests weren't the result of an organized plot, but you'll be amazed how similar the results of this past week of protest has been to the movie plot. 

The Spook Who Sat By the Door 1973

*Sambo was actually the sell-out character and Uncle Tom was the hero, but racism has distorted the nature of those two characters.

Violent response to George Floyd’s Murder Justified?

Earlier today I had a conversation with one of my closest friends about looting and fires that took place in Minneapolis. It's easy to talk about peaceful responses to violence that's not happening to you. If George Floyd was your son, father, brother, or husband, how peaceful would you feel? 

Tamika Mallory delivers a powerful message about violence prior to former NBA player Steven Jackson speaking about his friend George Floyd being murdered by police. 

Individuals have a right to resist and rebel against a tyrannical government and political injustices. Isn't that the example set by our nation's founding fathers? Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense when struggling to defend rights against tyranny, “it is the violence which is done and threatened to our persons … which conscientiously qualifies the use of arms”. Protesters in Minneapolis have been mostly peaceful, but some have decided, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Instead of destroying tea, they destroyed buildings including a police station.

“Negroes
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!"
–Warning! from Langston Hughes

On May 19th, in response to excessive force used by Des Peres, MO police against a black grandmother and her son who were falsely accused of stealing at Sam's Club on Hanley Road, I wrote the following response on Facebook.

"Until we do more than just protest, this will never end! Police and even random strangers feel comfortable violating our rights because they don't fear any consequences. As a collective group, we better figure out a way to make them fear us. It's just a matter of time before the next victim is you, your family member, or your friend, but unless there's a video you have almost zero chance at justice."

Less than a week later, the world witnessed the video of a random white woman, Amy Cooper, using her whiteness as an instrument of terror in New York's Central Park and a black man, George Floyd, tortured and murdered in Minneapolis by police. 

Floyd is the latest high profile unarmed black lynching victim. Nearly five years ago, the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis sparked weeks of protests. Now here we go again. I cried as I watched yet another lynching of an unarmed helpless black man. The cop knew he was being recorded, but seemed to have the attitude that as a policeman, no matter what he does, on or off-camera, his badge would protect him.

It's a clear case of murder for anyone that watches the video of Floyd's death. There's no justification! As one of the hero bystanders who tried to save Floyd stated, Chauvin seemed to enjoy it. At what point do we stop peacefully letting them kill us!

Mike Freeman, county attorney for Hennepin County, condemned the actions of white cop Derek Chauvin as "horrific and terrible", but he added there was "other evidence that does not support a criminal charge". When a black Minneapolis cop, Mohamed Noor, killed a white woman in a split-second decision, he was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to 12.5 years. Noor became the first Minneapolis policeman to be convicted of an on-duty killing. There was no video or talk about "other evidence".

There have been so many high profile killings of unarmed black people that go unpunished, it's difficult to keep track of them all, below is a partial list that includes four from St. Louis:

Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Eric Harris, Sam Dubose, Alton Sterling, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, Jordan Edwards, Mike Brown, Mansur Ball-Bey, Terry Tillman, Anthony Lamar Smith.

Chauvin was finally arrested and charged with murder, but not before a police station and more than fifty other buildings were burned. However, most police killings aren't recorded and don't become high profile. When cops lie and no video evidence exists, the cops are believed. It's always amazed me how many black men like Terry Tillman, supposedly point a gun at a cop and get killed before even getting off a shot.

King aptly stated that "riots are the language of the unheard"! King could utter the same words below today and they would be just as meaningful. 

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Dr. MLK Jr.

The Minneapolis police department has a long history of racism. The violence in Minneapolis is a symptom of racism. Until the disease racism is eradicated from police forces, these destructive reactions will become more common.

The current black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, filed a discrimination suit against the department earlier in his career. Only a tiny fraction of police brutality is captured on video, but that may soon change, as self-driving vehicles, delivery drones, and other technologies all equipped with multiple cameras, become more common, more incidences with be captured on camera.    

Hopefully, cities all across American will learn a lesson from Minneapolis. Gone are the days when protest about brutality remains completely peaceful. Modern protesters include revolutionaries within the ranks, some with nothing to lose and no fear. The best protection against violent reactions is no unnecessary violence! 

Bankruptcy courts ill-prepared for tsunami of people going broke from coronavirus shutdown

by Paige Marta Skiba, Vanderbilt University; Dalié Jiménez, University of California, Irvine; Michelle McKinnon Miller, Loyola Marymount University; Pamela Foohey, Indiana University, and Sara Sternberg Greene, Duke University

As more Americans lose all or part of their incomes and struggle with mounting debts, another crisis looms: a wave of personal bankruptcies.

Bankruptcy can discharge or erase many types of debts and stop foreclosures, repossessions and wage garnishments. But our research shows the bankruptcy system is difficult to navigate even in normal times, particularly for minorities, the elderly and those in rural areas.

COVID-19 is exacerbating the existing challenges of accessing bankruptcy at a time when these vulnerable groups – who are bearing the brunt of both the economic and health impact of the coronavirus pandemic – may need its protections the most.

If Americans think about turning to bankruptcy for help, they will likely find a system that is ill-prepared for their arrival.

The courts are sheltering in place too. 

It’s a hard road

There are many benefits to filing bankruptcy.

For example, it can allow households to avoid home foreclosure, evictions and car repossession. The “automatic stay” triggered at the start of the process immediately halts all debt collection efforts, garnishments and property seizures. And the process ends with a discharge of most unsecured debts, which sets people on a course to regain some financial stability.

The process helps the average household erase approximately US$50,000 in unsecured debt – such as payday loans and credit card and medical bills.

We know from our empirical research, however, that filing for bankruptcy comes with costs. In a Chapter 7 case, known as a liquidation when a debtor’s property is sold and distributed to creditors, households may be required to surrender some of their assets. The post-bankruptcy path to financial stability is often bumpy.

In a Chapter 13 reorganization case, households must commit to making monthly payments equal to their disposable income for three to five years. But the majority of people, unfortunately, are unable to keep up with their payments for that long and do not end up eliminating their debts.

Monetary costs can also be substantial. Attorney fees average $1,225 to $3,450. Court fees are over $300. And of course, there are also other downsides, such as social stigma, negative credit and lower future earnings.

Pent-up demand

Nonetheless, struggling Americans may find bankruptcy one of few viable options to address their worsening money problems, particularly as the pandemic shows no signs of ending soon.

Yet, as a consequence of nationwide shelter-in-place orders, consumer bankruptcy filings have declined significantly in recent weeks.

In the last 10 days of March, when states began issuing such orders, we found that Chapter 13 filings fell 45% compared with the last 10 days of March 2019, based on a docket search on Bloomberg Law. Filings in all of April – when most states were under lockdown – plunged 60%, while Chapter 7 filings were down 40%.

This suggests that there’s pent-up demand for bankruptcy protection – in terms of what we’d normally expect – on top of the impact from the coronavirus recession.

The current limited physical access of many bankruptcy courts presents additional problems, especially to already vulnerable groups. There is significant variation in how courts are handling the situation, but most require access to technology. This means that ethnic and racial minorities, seniors and people living in rural areas face systemic barriers to filing because of their more limited access to transportation and technology.

Self-represented filers, who navigate bankruptcy alone to avoid the hefty attorneys’ fees, face additional challenges and make up approximately 9% of bankruptcy cases. These filers typically have lower income and fewer assets – and thus are less able to afford the benefits of having an attorney – and are more likely to be black.

In some districts, only attorneys can file electronically, so people handling the process themselves must mail in their petition or find some other way of getting it to the courts, such as via physical drop boxes.

But such methods still assume access to technology. A computer, the internet and a printer are needed to access and print the petition. Libraries and other institutions that traditionally provide technology access for those who do not have it are, for the most part, closed.

Some courts are allowing initial email submission of the petition from those without attorneys, but petitioners are still required to follow up by sending original documents via the mail or drop boxes. Access to a computer, the internet and a printer remains necessary.

Finally many states require “wet signatures” on bankruptcy petitions. That is, people have to sign their names in ink, as opposed to using an electronic signature. To smooth filings while courts are physically closed, several states have waived this requirement for those using an attorney.

But even then, access issues still abound. People must first send their attorney the vast array of documents needed for filing – typically amounting to dozens of pages. Filers still need to be able to copy, scan and email documents. For those without computer access, they have to mail original documents, a somewhat risky proposition when important papers could get delayed, stolen or lost.

A bad time to file

In other words, the middle of a pandemic is not the best time to file for bankruptcy.

But with limited debt forbearances, over 30 million out of work and insufficient employment aid, we expect to see a great deal more distress – both financial and otherwise – in the coming months.

And without more aid to individuals soon, U.S. bankruptcy courts will likely face a tsunami of filings, not only from average Americans but companies as well. This will clog up the system, which is why many experts are calling on Congress to shore up bankruptcy courts with more judges and funding.

But a first priority should be shoring up individuals, for whom bankruptcy is seen as a last resort. If more aid isn’t forthcoming, the bankruptcy system may be too overwhelmed to handle even that.

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation 

Renters still left out in the cold despite temporary coronavirus protection

by Kirk McClure, University of Kansas and Alex Schwartz, The New School

Emergency relief for renters across America may protect them from the threat of eviction during the coronavirus crisis – but it won’t last for long.

The economic shutdown necessitated by COVID-19 has undermined the ability of millions of families and individuals to pay their landlords. But current measures to alleviate their hardship will not last through the summer, leaving the country at risk of a surge of evictions and homelessness within months.

Protesters demanding a freeze on rents in Minneapolis.

 

The current crisis also hits landlords, small ones especially, who may now struggle to meet mortgage payments, property taxes and other essential expenses. Again, the measures offered by Congress provide only limited relief.

As scholars of housing policy, we know that for any measure to have real impact, it will need to address problems facing both tenants and landlords. Such a solution may already exist in the Housing Choice Voucher program, a 40-year-old program which enables low-income households to afford rental housing in the private market.

Rental crisis

The coronavirus worsens an already severe housing affordability crisis. The most recent data shows that 10.7 million households, one-quarter of all renters, spend more than half of their income on rent, including 56% of all renters earning less than US$30,000 per year. More than 2.3 million renters are evicted annually. On any given night, more than 500,000 people are homeless, and nearly three times as many went homeless during the course of a single year.

More than 20 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the shutdown began, and this number is likely to climb higher in the weeks ahead.

The people most at risk of losing their jobs are those who work in low-paying service industries such as restaurants, hotels, personal services and the retail sector. They are also disproportionately likely to rent their homes.

Many of these workers will struggle to pay landlords in the coming months. As of 2019, the Federal Reserve reported that about 40% of all households could not cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing funds or selling a possession.

In an effort to provide relief to families and business hit by the economic meltdown, President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act on March 27.

Stay of eviction

The legislation provides considerable support to homeowners but much less to renters. Homeowners with government-supported mortgages such as those that are guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, accounting for 70% of all outstanding mortgages, can skip mortgage payments for up to 12 months without risk of foreclosure. Missed payments will instead by added to their mortgage balances.

Renters are afforded some protection. The legislation forbids private and public owners of rental housing financed with government assistanceabout 28% of all rentals – from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent over a period of six months. In addition to the CARES Act, 15 states and 24 cities have temporarily suspended evictions for nearly all renters in their jurisdictions.

The CARES Act also provides relief in the shape of expanded unemployment benefits as well as a one-off payment of $1,200 to eligible adults and an extra $500 per child.

But rental protection is unlikely to last more than a few months – less if stays on eviction are not enforced, as has been the case in a number of states.

Moreover, when renters skip their rent, they still owe it – it will need to be repaid at a later date.

These emergency measures do little to help landlords cover their expenses. It does prohibit lenders from foreclosing on landlords with federally backed mortgages, should they fail to make payment. But it does nothing to help them pay employees, utility bills or their property taxes. And when landlords cannot pay property taxes, it becomes even more difficult for hard-pressed cities, towns and school districts to provide essential services.

Room for improvement?

One alternative would be for the government to pay landlords directly to cover the loss of rental income. Rep. Ilhan Omar, for example, is proposing that all renters have their rents canceled, with landlords applying for compensation from the federal government.

A downside of this approach is the potential for providing assistance to landlords and tenants who do not need it. It would also require a new apparatus to administer the program, which could delay implementation.

Advocates and policymakers have suggested other ways government could address the looming rental housing crisis.

The approach partially adopted by the CARES Act is to compensate displaced workers for their loss of income. This could be expanded through repeated cash payments to households. Alternatively, unemployment benefits could be increased. But there is also no guarantee that recipients will use the funds for housing or that funds would be targeted at low-income households that require assistance.

The government could pay employers to keep workers on their payroll and hire back those they have let go. It has already adopted this approach to an extent, but not anywhere close to the scale that would be necessary. Scaling up these efforts would probably take months and may not be politically feasible.

Vouchers for success

We believe a more viable option would be expanding the government’s Housing Choice Voucher program. Established in 1974, it enables low-income households to rent housing in the private market, paying no more than 30% of their income on rent, with the government paying the rest.

It is available to all low-income households and currently serves 2.2 million households – although as many as 10 million were eligible for the program before the COVID crisis.

The program already has the administrative apparatus needed to handle an increase in participants: a nationwide network of over 3,300 housing authorities with decades of experience. Many have already demonstrated their capacity to dramatically expand operations to accommodate new households in the event of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.

If expanded to meet the demands of the current crisis, the Housing Choice Voucher program could act as a shock absorber for the rental housing market. For tenants, it would provide some stability where there now is uncertainty and reduce the risk of displacement, eviction and homelessness. For landlords, it would provide a steady stream of income to help pay the mortgage, property taxes and other expenses.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation