Posts

Keep Breaking the Law: Your Government Needs the Money

My colleague Matt Smith recently observed that Huntington Beach is following the model of Ferguson, Missouri: raising fines on misdemeanors in order to generate more revenue for a cash-strapped city. The Department of Justice found that strategy was a contributing factor to rioting that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.

But more punishing than the fines themselves is the schedule of fees associated with each fine. In Amador County, in the Sierra Nevada just east of Sacramento, the superior court notes that its practice is to hit the guilty with a “penalty assessment” – $26 “for every $10 of the base fine amount or portion thereof as set forth by the California State Legislature.” The court helpfully directs unbelievers to Penal Code 1464 and Government Codes 76000, 70372, 76104.6, 76104.7 and 76000.5.

That means the penalties associated with misdemeanor fines are far more expensive than the fines themselves. It gets worse: Counties can even – and do – add additional penalties.

The penalties imposed by state legislators are remarkable for their randomness. There’s money for the DNA Identification Fund and the State General Fund. The state gets more money from the penalties – for its “Penalty Fund,” its “State Court Facilities Fund” and money for “Building/Maintenance for Courts.” Some of the money pays for court security and a big chunk goes to court automation and city funds. There’s even money for the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Amador court shows you how, through the magic of the state legislature, your $25 jaywalking ticket becomes a $193 fine.

The Orange County Superior Court follows the same formula, but adds bonus penalties for lawbreakers. In addition to the state menu, OC adds fees to fund Emergency Medical Air Transport, Emergency Medical Services, and a fee “to fund Night Court operations.” That, Orange County says, is how a $35 speeding ticket becomes a $238 fine.

The bottom line: Keep breaking the law, your government needs the money.

Matt guessed the Ferguson model will do nothing to lubricate relations between police and Huntington Beach residents. In fact, it places cops between cash-hungry government officials and residents. Last month, as the Orange County Register reported, the City Council approved a plan to hire a city prosecutor to handle all those tickets.

“A significant number of misdemeanors go unprosecuted,” City Attorney Michael Gates told the Register, adding that the prosecutor will “add a lot of teeth to our laws.”

“There will be a whole class of crimes that will now be prosecuted where the DA may not have gotten to them,” Gates said. “We will prosecute every one of them until conviction.”

Huntington Beach isn’t alone, of course. All across California, pressed by the rising costs associated with government employees, cities are following Ferguson – increasing government regulation of human activity and then monetizing infractions, turning citizens into a crop harvested for its cash. When the citizens can’t pay up, they are torn from their homes and workplaces to serve time – a process that sounds more like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables than Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. The guilty often lose their jobs and families. In the end, their communities lose productive individuals.

“It’s a vicious cycle that hits people with limited income especially hard,” says Hieu Vu, a criminal defense attorney in Orange County. “If you can’t pay your traffic ticket, the court suspends your license. But you have to work so you end up driving with a suspended license. Eventually you get pulled over by the police and have your car taken away for 30 days and end up having to pay the impound fee of over a thousand dollars – and you now face the new criminal charge of driving on a suspended license.”

If you can’t afford to pay, you can agree to alternative of community service, like picking up trash on freeway shoulders for Caltrans. Even that has its perils. Paul William Nguyen, an Orange County criminal defense attorney with Shield Litigation, recalls a single mother “sentenced to 10 days of Caltrans, in lieu of 10 days of jail for a minor driving offense.

“This poor woman and her toddler came to court on the deadline date and asked the judge for a short extension – she had completed eight out of the 10 days of Caltrans and indicated that she was a single mother and the sole breadwinner in her family.

“The judge was not moved,” Nguyen says. The woman had made a contract, the judge said, and he expected her to honor it. He sentenced her to “the whole 10-day jail sentence and remanded her immediately. Her toddler was ripped out of her arms and she was handcuffed and transported to jail.”

“While she was ‘honoring’ her agreement,” Nguyen says, “her child was handed over to Social Services.”

Straitjacketed by constantly rising public employee compensation, local officials are raising taxes, fees and fines. In Ferguson, it took only one substantial conflict – the shooting of Michael Brown – to set off the chaos that followed. No right-thinking person supports the rioters; no right-thinking person can ignore the political context in which that riot took place.

Will Swaim is the VP of Communications at the California Policy Center.

Unfunded Pension Costs Driving Huntington Beach to Become More Like Ferguson, MO

It’s been 19 months since the U.S. Department of Justice released its scathing report on the Ferguson Police Department. Chief among the DOJ’s findings: Ferguson’s law enforcement practices were “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs.” Nearly every policing activity – including tickets, misdemeanor fines and court fees – was seen as an income opportunity.

That model led to tension between police and citizens, disrupting families and the community. When a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, on August 9, 2014, a city balancing on a knife’s edge toppled quickly into chaos.

Now what might be called Ferguson’s worst practices have been brought to Huntington Beach.

Last month, as the Orange County Register reported, the City Council approved a plan to hire a city prosecutor to handle misdemeanors.

“A significant number of misdemeanors go unprosecuted,” City Attorney Michael Gates told the Register, adding that the prosecutor will “add a lot of teeth to our laws.”

“There will be a whole class of crimes that will now be prosecuted where the DA may not have gotten to them,” Gates said. “We will prosecute every one of them until conviction.”

This comes on the heels of a proposal pushed through the council last year to substantially raise city fees and fines. Confronting a rising price tag for compensation for police and firefighters, then councilman, now mayor, Jim Katapodis put forward the plan as a means to cover the cost, and additional police officers.

Parking in front of a handicapped ramp will now cost you $356, an incredible jump from its former cost of $55. A glass container on the beach? Skateboarding? They’ll cost you $175 each, up from $125. There are others.

It’s not entirely surprising that Katapodis’ main public policy objective has been to increase the number of law enforcement officers to pre-recession numbers. He has spent his professional career in and around law enforcement. Police and fire unions have been staunch supporters, first backing Katapodis in 2010, when he ran for City Council while still an LAPD sergeant. According to Katapodis, adding more sworn officers is essential to ensure a safe city and should come at whatever cost necessary.

But over the last few years violent crime has been falling. And suspending basic accounting – adding more officers at higher pay – has driven Huntington Beach’s finances into the red.

City Council member Erik Peterson, who voted against the fee increases, said he didn’t understand how the city can start paying salaries without knowing how much they’ll receive from the increased fees.

In fact, H.B. owes $300 million on pensions for its retired city workers. That number was high enough to warrant a 2013 Moody’s investigative review. That review didn’t lead to a downgrade, but it’s a red flag.

In H.B., the Police Department is being expanded literally at the expense of the public, setting police against residents in a struggle not for public safety but for revenue. Critics say the mayor and City Council majority don’t even know how much revenue that parasitic system will generate. It’s equally clear they haven’t considered its costs. It cost Ferguson almost everything.

Matt Smith is a graduate student at Princeton Seminary, and a Journalism Fellow at the California Policy Center in Tustin.

Eric Holder Trumps Miley Cyrus

When it comes to obscenity, cheating kids out of a good education is far worse than a salacious dance act.

While it is a sad spectacle to watch a gawky 20 year-old stick out her tongue and sex it up in front of millions on national television, the 62 year-old U.S. Attorney General’s act is far worse, as his will do much more lasting harm. He waves his magic wand and poof – thousands of poor children are chained to the confines of failing schools in Louisiana.

Miley Cyrus would appear to be a lost puppy whose father claimed in 2011 that she was influenced by Satan. On the other hand, Eric Holder would seem to be under the spell of the teachers unions and the overrated god of diversity.

The Holder story has its roots in May when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that:

the current method of funding the statewide school voucher program is unconstitutional. Act 2, part of Gov. Bobby Jindal‘s 2012 package of education reforms, diverts money from each student’s per-pupil allocation to cover the cost of private or parochial school tuition. The act authorizes both the Louisiana Scholarship Program and the new Course Choice program. 

In other words, the voucher program is sound, but the court thought its funding mechanism wasn’t constitutional. So on June 6th, the Louisiana House and Senate compromised on a budget that allowed the program to use funds not allocated through the state’s funding formula.

Problem solved, right?

Not quite.

Later in June, the teachers unions School Choice Enemy No. 1 promptly swung into action.

The Louisiana Association of Educators and several local teachers associations have filed a class-action suit charging that the state owes local school boards $199 million as a result of the Louisiana Supreme Court decision striking down part of the state’s voucher law.

Okay, so we are still dealing with funding issues, not the legality of vouchers.

But then in August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the bomb and The Wall Street Journal pointed out its stunning irony,

On nearly the same day the Attorney General spoke in Washington to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, his Justice Department sued to block the educational dreams of minority children in Louisiana.

Late last week, Justice asked a federal court to stop 34 school districts in the Pelican State from handing out private-school vouchers so kids can escape failing public schools. Mr. Holder’s lawyers claim the voucher program appears “to impede the desegregation progress” required under federal law. Justice provides little evidence to support this claim, but there couldn’t be a clearer expression of how the civil-rights establishment is locked in a 1950s time warp.

Passed in 2012, Louisiana’s state-wide program guarantees a voucher to students from families with incomes below 250% of poverty and who attend schools graded C or below. The point is to let kids escape the segregation of failed schools, and about 90% of the beneficiaries are black. (Emphasis added.)

Impeding desegregation? On what grounds does the Justice Department make this claim? Cato’s Jason Bedrick explains,

In Tangipahoa Parish, for instance, Independence Elementary School lost five white students to voucher schools, the petition states. The consequent change in the percent of enrolled white students “reinforc(ed) the racial identity of the school as a black school.”

Five students! According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 143 white students out of 482 students at Independence Elementary School in 2010-11 (the most recent year for which data is available). Assuming that recent enrollment and racial composition is the same and that no black students received vouchers as well, that’s a shift from 29.6 percent white to 28.9 percent white. Though the students at Independence almost certainly would not have noticed a difference, the racial bean counters at the DOJ see worsening segregation.

But the DOJ is not content merely to prevent white students from exercising school choice. The petition also cites Cecilia Primary School, which in 2012-13 “lost six black students as a result of the voucher program,” thereby “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.” In the previous school year, the school’s racial composition was 30.1 percent black, which the DOJ notes was 16.4 percentage points lower than the black composition of the district as a whole. According to the NCES, in 2010-11 there were 205 black students out of a total enrollment of 758, so the school was 27 percent black. Assuming a constant total enrollment, the DOJ’s numbers suggest that there were 228 black students in 2011-12. The loss of six black students would mean the school’s racial composition shifted from 30.1 percent black to 29.2 percent black as a result of the voucher program. Again, imperceptible to untrained eye but a grave threat to racial harmony according to the Obama administration’s Department of Justice.

These are the only two schools cited directly in the DOJ’s petition, so presumably they represent the two cases with the largest impact. A footnote reveals that “The net loss ranged up to thirteen students per school.”

Why is Holder doing this obscene dance?

Is he so smitten with the concept of diversity that he is letting it take precedent over the needs of poor kids in failing schools? Could be, but then again, as noted above, the voucher-driven diversity realignment is miniscule. Or, is he doing the bidding of the teachers unions who are powerful political allies? Maybe both. But whatever the motivation, the lawsuit stinks, and the harm it will inflict on mostly underprivileged, minority children is tragic.

What Holder and his ilk don’t seem to understand is that most parents are not stricken with the diversity obsession, and simply want the best education possible for their kids. If you ask any parent of any ethnicity if they rather their kid get a first class education at single-ethnicity school or a mediocre-to-lousy one at a rainbow-school, we all know what the answer would be.

Louisiana’s gutsy governor Bobby Jindal put it all into perspective in an interview with Neil Cavuto,

My parents came here over 40 years ago in search of the American dream, confident if you worked hard, it didn’t matter what race you were, didn’t matter who you knew. That’s what we’re trying to deliver for our kids. And that’s why it’s just ridiculous to me that the Obama administration would side with teachers unions over these young children.

Cavuto then asked Jindal if he thought that the teachers unions were pushing the issue because vouchers endanger their jobs. Jindal responded,

Oh, absolutely. Look, they tried, they tried to take us all the way up to the state Supreme Court to stop this program. The teachers unions did. The program is still here. They tried recalling our speaker of the House and me and some others. And we’re still here. The reality is, teachers unions, when we started this statewide, said that parents don’t have a clue when it comes to making choices for their kids. (Emphasis added.)

That’s their world viewpoint. These government unions think the bureaucrats know better. I have met with the moms. And, Neil, it would break your heart that they’re working multiple jobs. They want their kids to have a better quality of life than they have had. They’re trying to do the right thing. They’re telling me this is the first time my kid is bringing home homework, my kid is going to school with discipline. My kids are talking about for the first time thinking about going to college, the first one in our families to graduate from high school. They’re talking about becoming the first ones.

As we all know, Martin Luther King concluded his famous speech 50 years ago with the inspirational words, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.” But if Mr. Holder and the teachers unions get their way, a bunch of school kids and their families in Louisiana will remain shackled to their failing schools, guaranteeing that their shot at achieving the American dream and true freedom will be next to impossible. Dr. King would be outraged.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.