Geithner's Giving Me The Balky Blues

A few years back, while researching my second book Snitch I found myself returning to one simple question: why has even modest criminal justice policy reform been so difficult to achieve?

The question was sparked specifically by the notorious 100:1 disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

This injustice had been decried for more than a decade by drug policy reform advocates to even federal judges. Yet the sentencing disparity between the two forms of essentially the same drug proved incredibly difficult to change. Indeed, since 1995 The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) repeatedly criticized the guidelines for being too harsh and for applying mostly to low-level offenders--yet nothing changed. [More...]

Now, I realize that changing policy of any kind is a slow process, partciularly when it comes to criminal justice policy which has been rooted in a blind, "tough on crime" mindset since the 1980s. And it was heartening to see Supreme Court decisions such as Kimbrough v. The United States in 2007 in which the court ruled that judges could sentence crack cocaine offenders below the sentencing guidelines.

Nonetheless, mandatory minimums have still yet to be eliminated. And the lack of meaningful progress in criminal justice policy reform--particularly when you have not just the Drug Policy Alliance but Republican Senators like Jeff Sessions arguing that the criminal justice system is broken--seemed to me to be indicative of a democracy that had become sadly incapable of real reform.

It turned out I was not alone in thinking this way. Via James Howard Kunstler I read Dmitry Orlov's presentation "Closing the Collapse Gap," a sort of side by side comparison of the U.S. and late stage USSR. Orlov wrote that, like the USSR, the U.S. has a "balky, unresponsive, corrupt political system, incapable of reform."

I've been thinking about Orlov a lot as I follow the developments with Geithner and Treasury, in which all the bad ideas seem to be winning out.

Against all evidence from the likes of Krugman, Roubini, Yves Smith, etc., Geithner insists that the financial crisis stems from an irrational "fire sale" of undervalued assets. Yet here's Roubini on the financial crisis once again disputing that view: this is NOT a liquidity crisis, instead "the institutions are insolvent."

With each passing day in this financial crisis--particularly today's bizarre revelations about the stress tests which Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock rightly called called "something of a joke"-- I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Orlov's diagnosis of the U.S. is correct. Our democracy not only stumbles in the face of crisis--it fights off any credible fixes.

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    Reform (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by randy80302 on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:31:11 PM EST
    The criminal justice system has vast (every county has a sheriff) entrenched criminal justice industrial complex that is resistant to change.

    The criminal justice reform movement has begun built an infrastructure in the last ten years that is just beginning to mature. I personally believe that reform policies will begin to be implemented over the next ten years.

    The state of the American prison system is bankrupting states, with no reform prison related expenses are going to take resources away from valuable services and politicians will come to realize are not productive for reducing crime.

    Prosecutors in both the state and federal systems are a stepping stone for future politicians to make their bones, so they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

    Colorado is a good example, our Governor made a name for himself as the District Attorney for the City and County of Denver. He has vetoed some minor reform bills and the legislators know that he will not support any meaningful reform to the current system.

    Last year a legislator identified a prisoner that he came to believe was wrongly convicted and submitted a bill to provide relief to the individual. The press reported the story and the bill seemed to have a chance to pass until the District Attorney of Denver personally lobbied by showing the criminal record of the wrongly convicted person and used the argument that even if he did not commit the rape for which he was convicted he deserved to spend decades in prison. The bill died and the innocent person remains in prison.

    If being innocent of a crime does not require relief, this system is broken and needs to be fixed.

    My personal crusade of work to change the criminal justice system is just beginning and I don't have any answers, but I participate in blog communities and learn and share more every day. I work with the faith that change will come to a system that does not work and does not solve the problems that it is supposed to fix.

    It is similar to water dripping on a stone. (none / 0) (#8)
    by JSN on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:55:02 PM EST
    One of the reasons the criminal justice system responds so slowly is that it is a confederation of independent agencies with a common set of clients. At the operational level there is a high degree of cooperation.

    There is no general oversight and each agency makes policy independent of the other members of the system. The judicial branch is one of the members of the system and it has to be independent so the best one can hope for is that the members of the system will be willing to coordinate their policies.

    It is funded by client fines/fees and a combination of city, county,state and federal funds. It is a lot of work to determine what it cost to operate the criminal justice system. In Iowa the judicial branch makes a 12% profit but almost all of that goes into the general fund.

    Because most people are law abiding the only direct contact they have with the CJ system is when they are called for jury duty. As a consequence there is no well defined constituency and the system is chronically underfunded.


    Twas not always such (5.00 / 4) (#4)
    by cal1942 on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:01:16 PM EST
    Our democracy not only stumbles in the face of crisis--it fights off any credible fixes.

    Seventy-six years ago a roughly similar circumstance was acted on with all dispatch and meaningful reform occured.  Forty-five years ago the first and long overdue Civil Rights act in nearly a century passed by strident doggedness. Sixty-two years ago decisive action was taken to rebuild war ravaged Europe and Japan.  Sixty-four years ago the soldiers who fought a terrible war were rewarded with a program to unleash their latent talent and strengthen the nation for decades.

    Then we had actual leaders with real  convictions.  Now we have little vassals.

    Now we have "empty vessels." (5.00 / 3) (#5)
    by oculus on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:12:03 PM EST
    at all levels (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by DFLer on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:17:11 PM EST
    I don't know what to tell you Ethan Brown (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:36:24 PM EST
    outside of we sit upon a precipitice of socialogical self discovery.  I went with my son's class on their Easter egg hunt today.  God we had a great time, everybody did. Moving to the Bible belt South really freaked me out four years ago and I freaked out everybody around here that met me, and then I got damned tired of how I always seemed to freak the anxiety ridden.....come on, gimmee a break anxiety ridden Evangelicals, grow some nads or some skin or something for cripes sake if you are going to be who you are in the REAL WORLD.  I started here worrying about fitting in and that was short lived for me as it always is.  Everyone is more receptive though right now as to who we are and what we are together.  Sometimes in the worst of times the best things happen.   Let it be.

    And I assumed you would be the (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by oculus on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:38:42 PM EST
    leader of the parent group striving to change "Easter egg hunt" to Spring egg hunt" or something.  Glad a good time was had by all.

    for geithner to take any (5.00 / 2) (#11)
    by cpinva on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 12:31:19 AM EST
    other approach would be to admit that everything he thinks he knows to be true (regarding economics/finance) is wrong. he has dedicated his entire professional life to a single philosophy, which not only blinds him to any other possible solution, but would actually cause him massive psychological damage, were he to recognize the inherent fallacy in it.

    he was/is the wrong man for the job. time for obama (if he really is as smart as he's supposed to be) to cut his losses, and get someone else in there who lives in this reality.

    It's the voters (5.00 / 0) (#12)
    by StevenT on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:40:00 AM EST
    Many who are involve in politics are good folks who want to change the current system into a better one. The problem is that the voters prefer to go with someone who has better rhetoric/charisma than those better who are actually dedicated to reform the system. The ignorance of the voters which are causing our current system to fail. I see no way out of this cycle as our people just don't care enough. It's all about the looks now. Very rare can you find a leader who has both the looks and the knowledge to run the nation. Bill Clinton is one. Let's just hope that Obama will be one.

    Another major difficulty that we have is the disparity between public and private wages. If we are not willing to pay good wages to our representatives, judges, etc, then we will not attract enough people who have the talents and the dedication for the job. That's why lobbying plays such a important function in our political system. How would you expect our representatives to be independant or to have the resources to conduct his own research if the salary is just around 200 k. Running an election will cost at least 10x of that.

    Thanks/Clarification (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by Ethan Brown on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 09:39:42 AM EST
    The comments are making me realize that the lack of progress in reforming the criminal justice system is probably an imperfect comparison to what's happening now with the financial crisis.

    Here's--I hope--a simpler explanation of what I was attempting to say: Let's say experts, A, B, C, and D propose a fix to a public policy. Experts A-D are not only highly credible--they've been consistently correct in their approach to this policy. Yet experts A-D are ignored and worse an approach to this particular policy is adopted that fundamentally gets it wrong.

    I see this happening across the board--from health care to criminal justice policy to the financial crisis--and I'm worried that our democracy is incapable of real reform.

    Unintended consequences are the hallmark of (none / 0) (#14)
    by JSN on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 05:05:09 PM EST
    the criminal justice system. For example the largest mental hospital in Iowa is inside prison walls. Nobody wanted that but it happened anyway. Nobody in Iowa wanted a large prison population (in fact they tried to cap the population) but it grew like a cancer anyway.
    It grew when the population of the state was nearly constant and the crime rate was (and still is) below the national average.

    Why? They created new crimes and they enhanced penalties for existing crimes because a "tough on crime" plank was essential for being elected. They explained to experts A-D "we agree with what you say be we have to be elected to make public policy".


    in large part, i attribute this failure (none / 0) (#15)
    by cpinva on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 12:35:45 AM EST
    see this happening across the board--from health care to criminal justice policy to the financial crisis--and I'm worried that our democracy is incapable of real reform.

    to our major media. for the past 30 years, they've devoted themselves to personality, rather than policy. hence, we've elected "guys you'd want to have a beer with", rather than those boring guys/women who actually understand what's going on.

    formulating intelligent policies, designed to positively impact the general public, is really hard work. it's not nearly as fun, for participant and reporter, as landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, all suited up and lookin' like a stud muffin!

    is it any wonder that a guy (bush) consistently wrong throughout his entire life, but a fun loving frat boy, defeated (sort of) two people who do think? one of whom (gore) has been pretty much consistently right, throughout his entire life? but he's soooooooooooooooooo boring!

    the "era of celebrity" has affected us far beyond the confines of hollywood.

    as some wise person once opined, "we get the government we deserve."


    Orlov (none / 0) (#1)
    by Dadler on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 07:47:14 PM EST
    interesting and quite persuasive, but for one factor he doesn't seem to address.  nations have, for better or worse cliches, a kind of national personality, a social disposition.  that of the u.s. and that of the former soviet union are too different in too many aspects (certainly similar in others, and insidiously so oftentimes) to be essentially comparable.

    Think of two different people with two different personalities and how differently they react in specific and obvious situations.  That is what I mean at its most basic level.

    While I certainly see worse times ahead in many respects, I cannot look to the former soviet union for cautionary tales.  America, certainly, will create a collapse of a singularly phucked up and largely incomparable nature.  IMO.  Could be wrong.  My own head may be in the street before I know it.  

    A group of us grassroots (none / 0) (#2)
    by hairspray on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:15:35 PM EST
    people worked like crazy for 5 years to get instant runoff passed in our smallish city.  Running a campaign was tough, but the real tough part was getting the politicians to agree to it.  The amount of cajoling was intense.  Finally after standing on street corners, walking precincts and a year of living crazy we got it on the ballot (thank heavens for our local newspaper editorials and op-eds) and it passed big.   Now three years latter we are still pushing to get it implemented. This time it is the federal election systems okaying the software, next the state is acting like they never heard of this.  It is unbelievable how much constant pushing and prodding it takes to do this.  And of course, no screaming allowed.