A New Kind of Debtor Prison
Nicholas Kristoff, the thoughtful and socially conscious NYT columnist wrote eloquently about what could be called debtors’ prison not long ago drawing attention to the fact that people who can’t afford to pay fines are jailed instead, a system that ensures they won’t be able to pay. Serving time puts one’s job in jeopardy, should one have a job because many of those who are fined are homeless, for example being fined for sleeping on a park bench. The system also places the children of single parents at risk, and can mean eviction for some. Still nation- wide the practice continues and is often used as a means for certain localities to raise money. But a few days prior to Kristoff’s column, the LA Times had run a similar article in this case drawing attention to the fact that the ACLU had fought and won several lawsuits trying to outlaw the practice. They have won in Richland, Washington, Biloxi, Miss., Colorado Springs, Colo. and East Pointe, Mich. We might all remember that the issue of jailing people who can’t pay fines was an issue in Ferguson, Mo, one the federal government made the city discontinue. The aim of the ACLU lawsuits is to have the practice discontinued everywhere. Given the resistance of certain cities, the ACLU wins are no small feat. They are unconstitutional given a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court that defendants can’t be jailed simply for being poor. That of course helped the ACLU’s case in Benton County (where Richland, Washington is). The victory included ability-to-pay hearings, payment plans and if possible jail alternatives such as community service. When you read about people trying to get back on their feet, following perhaps drug offenses, and given that interest compounds the debt, it’s easy to wonder if that’s enough. In Richland incarceration gives the inmate a $50 a day credit towards their debt. Should they choose being on a work crew, maybe cleaning streets or doing gardening chores, they are credited $80. When the debt accumulated is thousands of dollars and people work at minimum wage, perhaps considering debt forgiveness is in order. The issue may not affect us directly, yet, it nevertheless is an example of how to create a more just society.
Tampons and Pads and a New Law
Few among us would think that access to sanitary napkins is a problem. Yet to the less fortunate among us, it is. Now, New York City made history recently by enacting legislation enabling women in schools, correctional facilities and shelters to have access to tampons and pads during their periods. The lack of access has had sad and objectionable effects that usually went unmentioned because the whole idea of menstruation and menstrual products have been taboo. NYC is in the lead as far as the US is concerned. Canada abolished its goods and services tax on menstrual products last summer. The European Union allows the Value Added Tax to be 0 and even Kenya has since 2011 budgeted up to $3million a year to distribute free sanitary pads to schools in low income communities. In the US 40 states have what is called a tampon tax, 15 have moved to get rid of it in the past year and just last June the American Medical Association issued a statement urging states to exempt menstrual products from taxes. What is saved by eliminating tax on these products may however not be of much help in most cases where access is needed. That’s why the NYC law can provide needed relief and being the first in the US is to be noted. As any progress it did not come without effort from advocacy groups. Headlines from NPR and Cosmopolitan magazine as well as part of an initiative from Michelle Obama also all contributed. The three intended beneficiaries of the free distributions are schools where the monthly expense can be often too much for low income families, in shelters where the lack of sanitary napkins may not only be a health issue, but one of shame allowing women not to have to go around with blood stained clothing, and correctional facilities where the lack of menstrual products was named a health crisis by the Correctional Association of New York, a state where in one prison doctors requested a bag filled with used pads as proof they needed more. While as a law it may not affect most of us, it may nevertheless make us feel hopeful that other states follow NYC’s example.
Professional Licenses For Undocumented
It takes courage to be an illegal immigrant, not only to brave the journey but then to live with whatever one has to do to avoid discovery, not to speak of the accompanying fear. When I read that those in the US illegally could apply for a driver’s license in California, I wondered if I’d have the courage if I were an undocumented immigrant. It’s hard enough to be an immigrant, being undocumented would make it daunting. According to a recent L A Times feature some 300 people have availed themselves of a year old law that allows those here illegally to apply for several kinds of professional licenses, barbers, cosmetologist, auto mechanic, security guards, doctors, nurses, psychologist and pharmacists among others. Instead of a social security number, applicants can provide a federal taxpayer identification number which can be obtained by those here without documentation. Of course there are those who don’t like the law and who believe it is essentially corrupting our elections. But those who are behind it feel it is strengthening communities, insures that those providing services have the training required, add to the pool of professionals which increases tax revenues and utilize an untapped worker population. On a personal level it improves the lives of many, people who had to be laborers who can now work in their own professions. My own father was a pharmacist who could not practice here, I wonder had the law existed years ago, had he been able to practice during those 5 years before he became a citizen, how many things would have ended up being easier for him and my mother? People here without proper papers don’t usually announce they are, the law gives them an option and our knowing it exists may perhaps enable us to extend that option to someone we might know.
Where Labor Rights and Sexual Harassment Meet
The idea that the lives of models are not all glamour that there is an ugly underside is not new. We’re familiar with the push to have models that are so thin as to invite anorexia. Countries like France and Israel have passed laws against this. In the US no such action has been taken. But as far as I understand the problem is more involved than that, it includes wage theft and sexual harassment. The sexual harassment is not confined to minor infractions but according to former models is constant and even calls for sleeping with agency directors and men the agency wants to impress. Part of the problem is that models are considered independent contractors, not regular employees. This means that they are not subject to wage and labor laws and even to sexual harassment rules and guidelines. Besides, many modeling jobs are not high paying and it is difficult to make any kind of complaint without losing your job. Think Bill Cosby who apparently admitted in a deposition that he even asked a modelling agent to connect him with women who were new and not doing well financially. What adds to the seriousness of the issues is that models are young, usually between 13 and 21, begin their career anywhere from 13 to 16 and are not equipped to stand up for themselves. Several former models have now become advocates. Sara Ziff, who is a graduate student at Harvard, recently wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times and is the founding member of a group Model Alliance is one. There’s also Nikki DuBose who testified in Sacramento towards a bill to offer some of the needed protections. The bill has thus far made it through the California Assembly but not without opposition. Hopefully it will soon become law in California and set the state for similar laws in other states.
Most of us will not be models but we may be apt to encounter some attractive young person wishing to be a one and sharing this is a field where labor rights and sexual harassment meet might just sway him or her to think twice.
”…Before The Storm”
Bono, the lead singer for the band U2 and a known activist, has been true to form. He recently went to the Middle East and East Africa where he visited a number of refugee camps. He came away feeling that the problem is bigger than many countries acknowledge. Not only are many refugees not in camps but reside in the cities of the host countries where they may not have jobs or access to services, the problem is not going away. The idea of a “permanent temporary solution” will not do the job. While he was impressed with the sense of hope he found among refugees, a hope that helped him, he is calling for a ”Marshall Plan” to address the refugee issue. The Marshall Plan as some may recall was a plan set us by the United States to help Europe recover from WWII. Bono’s point is that without seriously addressing the problem, several countries could fracture and he asks us to think of what would happen if a country like Nigeria, several times larger than Syria were to fracture as a result of Boko Haram. We would then he says “wish we had been thinking bigger before the storm.” Shortly after his trip Bono testified before the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee and there he said that we need to stop thinking about foreign aid as charity and start thinking about it in terms of national security. He believes that using foreign aid with a strong focus on fighting corruption and improving governance that that would be the best bulwark against extremism. It is clear that Bono was speaking in terms of the common good and without a political agenda. It was therefore easier for him to see and understand what was needed with common sense and even wisdom. Those who are in a position to make decisions about solving the refugee problem and what to do about foreign aid, certainly should heed him. As to people like us, we need to also be informed as to what a non-politicized statement sounds like and what kind of solutions it may call for.
Felons Voting Rights
Our search for civil rights is far from over, there are still groups for whom such rights are elusive. One, which is a group we don’t often think about, is former felons. In most states they can’t vote after they are released, a phenomenon called felony voter disenfranchisement. Several groups are now involved in working towards reinstating felon’s voting rights, groups such as The Sentencing Project, Campaign to End The New Jim Crow, or the American Friends Service Committee. While there is far from universal agreement about reinstating those rights, there is at present no organized group working against the idea. The opposition comes mainly from politicians or governors delaying or vetoing certain provisions. Reinstating voting rights, advocates say, is a way to reduce inequality and practice democracy. It is also an issue of fairness, a tool to help individuals who have paid their debts to society, rebuild a life and feel part of the society they live in. Some states allow former felons to have their rights reinstated after long forms and procedures, some don’t, some impose lifetime ban, some require petition to the governor, something that may take years and is usually denied. Up until recently when governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to some 200,000 felons, Virginia has had some of the most stringent laws and is also the state where much activity has been taking place such as volunteers like Richard Walker going to malls and other gathering places asking if anyone knows anyone who was a felon who needs their voting rights reinstated. He then helps people fill out forms, but mostly explains what they can do. Most former felons do not know the laws in the state where they live, do not know they may be able to fill out forms. Nationwide, The Sentencing Project estimates, there at 5.8 million ex- felons who could vote. It is also estimated that in the 2000 presidential election, a few such votes might have made the state of Florida vote for Al Gore and changed the course of the election. While some critics say reinstating voting rights is a move that would primarily benefit Democrats, advocates say it is not a question for either Democrats or Republicans, that each person much be seen as an individual.
If the continuing march towards civil rights matters to us, then felon rights ought to be on our radar.
To Ponder On
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”