Stop racist rhetoric and legislation on refugees

The U.S. Congress should be ashamed. Today, House Republicans, joined by 47 Democrats, hastily passed a bill that would effectively end the current U.S. refugee program for refugees fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria — a war our government is actively involved in.

This week, following the tragic terror attacks in Paris, politicians in our country have flooded the airwaves and the internet with racist and alarmist rhetoric. At a time when we should be embracing all victims of violence, they are asking us be hateful.

Senator Ted Cruz and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have called for excluding all but Christian refugees, an idea both inhumane and repugnant to our basic values. More than half of governors have said they’ll reject refugees. This is xenophobic posturing — blocking refugees is not within their authority — but it’s damaging all the same.

President Obama has vowed to veto the bill, reminding Congress that the refugee screening process is extremely rigorous and lengthy, taking 18 to 24 months. That’s far too long.

Only 2,200 Syrian refugees have come to the U.S. since the civil war began in 2011, according to the Washington Post. The White House proposes adding an additional 10,000 over the next year. Meanwhile, the civil war has driven more than 11 million people from their homes. They are looking for places to rebuild their lives. We can and should do a lot more.

Closing the door to refugees is about hate and fear — not about safety. There’s no evidence refugees had anything to do with the Paris attacks, or that curbing refugees would make anyone safer. It won’t.

France has chosen the wiser path, reaffirming its commitment to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. In the wake of their own suffering, the French haven’t turned against the most vulnerable in their moment of greatest need.

We reject racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. We join with all voices of conscience that mourn victims of violence around the world and call for a nationwide welcome of refugees.

Please sign this petition calling on Governors to stop the collective punishment of refugees in need

RefugeeMeme3

Let’s Block Too-Big-To-Fail Insurance Mergers

By LeeAnn Hall and Wendell Potter

This article was originally published in Roll Call.

If you thought too-big-to-fail banks were dangerous, watch out for too-big-to-fail health insurance companies.

This summer, the country’s top insurers announced a spate of merger plans, lighting up the business pages nationwide. Health insurance giant Anthem unveiled its intention to absorb competitor Cigna, while Aetna put in a bid for Humana — mergers that, if approved, will cut the country’s big insurers down from five to just three. Add to these proposals Centene’s plan to scoop up Health Net, and it looks like a feeding frenzy.

The bad news is that we’re the bait.

On Sept. 29, the House Judiciary Committee brought company CEOs into a hearing on the deals. There, committee members raised questions not only about competition, but also about the impact of such mergers on both affordability and quality of care.

Meanwhile, the health insurance companies have put their PR in high gear.

In prepared testimony, Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish claimed the merger is about “complementary platforms” and “better value.” But this kind of lingo can’t hide what the proposals are really about: They are not about making quality care more affordable, but about amassing profits in an industry where companies such as Anthem boast profits of $2.5 billion or more a year.

We certainly shouldn’t buy the argument that bigger-than-ever health insurance companies will make our health insurance better or more affordable. If insurance giants grow even larger, we can expect premiums to rise — not go down. Take the example of UnitedHealth’s purchase of Nevada’s Sierra Health Group, triggering premium increases 13.7 percent greater than they would have been without the merger.

There’s also the risk that insurers will squeeze more doctors, hospitals and other providers out of their networks, adding extra hassles and costs for patients. This danger is even higher for those living in low-income communities or rural areas where it’s already hard to find doctors.

As the Sierra example shows, there’s nothing new about insurance company mergers. Anthem attained “megaplan” status 11 years ago when it snapped up WellPoint.

As a result, in many of our cities and towns, a small group of insurers — or even just one — has a real grip on the market. A recent American Medical Association report found a high concentration of insurance markets in 72 percent of metropolitan areas studied, with a single insurer claiming 30 percent of more of market share in 90 of these areas.

Yet, neither the House nor the Senate has a say in these deals. That’s why we need the Department of Justice and our state watchdogs — whether attorneys general or insurance regulators — to take action against these proposals.

Halting the mergers would be consistent with the Affordable Care Act, which gives us the tools to change the terms of competition among health insurance companies. Before the ACA, insurers competed for “good risk” — meaning covering people who were young and healthy and dumping anyone with higher health care needs. Now they can’t turn you down or charge you more for a pre-existing condition. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still driven by the quest for profits and will try to bend or mold the rules to bolster those profits.

Health Insurance Is Great – Navigators Needed to Help People Use It

This spring, Adriann Barboa and her colleagues at Strong Families New Mexico went on a five-county tour, fanning out across the state to share findings from the Breaking Barriers study they’d conducted on progress under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The report is part of a ten-state series by the Alliance for a Just Society.

“In all the towns we went to, many people said it was great to finally have insurance, but they didn’t know how to use it,” Barboa said.

“The Breaking Barriers report recommends using navigators to help people understand what a primary care provider is, what preventive care is, and how to get those services using their insurance,” Barboa said. “Across the five counties people pointed to that recommendation and said ‘That’s what we need.'”

Since passage of the ACA, the United States has seen a record decline in the uninsured rate. In 2013, more than 13 percent of people in the country were uninsured. By 2014, that figure had dropped to 10.4 percent.

These gains were achieved thanks to the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and subsidies for coverage through state and federal marketplaces. The new law made millions of people eligible for health coverage when they’d been shut out in the past.

But, even with these changes, it took real people to get so many new enrollees through the door – these are the navigators mentioned by Barboa.

In the first open enrollment period alone, navigators and other enrollment assisters helped more than 10 million people apply for coverage. These navigators provided information about plans, assisted people with forms, helped them submit documents, and showed them how to make their payments.

This help was – and continues to be – key to the ACA’s success, which is why the federal Department of Health and Human Services is increasing its investment in navigator programs.

We all know how apt the term “navigator” is, since the process of enrolling in health insurance is so complicated. But those complications don’t end once you’re signed up for insurance and have sent off your first premium payment. Using health insurance can be very confusing, too.

Many of us have had questions about our coverage. How do I select a doctor or other practitioner from my health plan’s list of providers? What kind of care comes free of additional costs, and when may I be charged out-of-pocket payments – and how much will those payments be? How do I find out what services or prescriptions are covered? If I’m denied a service, what are my rights to challenge that denial?

These questions are hard enough when you’ve had health insurance your whole life. It’s that much harder if you’re getting coverage for the first time. In that case, you’re entering a new world of formal terminology, provider lists, and paperwork.

That’s why navigator-type programs should be there for us after we enroll, too.

Without an effort to make sure coverage translates into care, we run the risk of missing out on the promise of health reform – which, we should remember, is about transforming our health sector so people can get the care they need. Enrolling all those millions of formerly uninsured people is just the first step.

As the Alliance for a Just Society’s recent Breaking Barriers reports show, many people – especially people of color and low-income people – still aren’t getting into the doctor’s office even after they have coverage.

Some community-based organizations provide good models for how an integrated assistance program can help people move into coverage and then turn that coverage into care.

The Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY) provides one such model. Drawing on funding from New York State, CSSNY has established an innovative coverage-to-care approach – using both a navigator network and a community health advocates program – that helps people obtain coverage and put their coverage to use.

A New Yorker needing help can call CSSNY’s toll-free helpline, where advocates connect people to enrollment assistance, answer questions about coverage, or help troubleshoot insurance issues (such as coverage denials or billing problems). Using a hub-and-spoke structure, CSSNY also works with a broad, statewide network of community group and small business groups, offering help in almost 200 languages.

We need more programs like this one if we hope to truly transform our health care system and make it work for everyone. We need to make sure a person’s insurance card is worth much more than the plastic it’s printed on. Good coverage-to-care navigator programs are key to achieving that goal.

Daley Weekly: Power of the Pope and Political Patter

Speaker Boehner

I have only met Speaker John Boehner in a favorite restaurant near the Capitol. Brief encounters over cigarettes. Seemed like a personable fellow, easy to meet and easy to smile. He also did not have the deep mean streak that seems to dominate the approach of the deeply conservative members of the Republican Caucus. He was constantly forced into the corner by the most vocal and vitriolic.

Boehner is a Catholic and it is impossible not to see an influence from the visit of the Pope in the timing of his announcement to resign from the Speakership and the Congress. Boehner wept openly during the Pope’s address on Thursday. He apparently quoted the Pope’s prayer during his resignation announcement.

While almost every political position Boehner took is inimical to my own, I do not find his resignation a good thing. It can only make the mess in D.C. worse. It probably means that there will be no immediate government shutdown. A bigger longshot is the speculation that Boehner could bring forth a vote on immigration reform –but the Pope was pretty clear and it is an emotional moment.

Global Traffic Jam

Something like 150 heads of state rolling around the U.S. snarling traffic and taxing the security resources of a dozen cities. They include a Pope, a Chinese President, the Indian Prime Minister, and Russian President Putin.  The Pope easily cornered the charisma market, not that a guy like Putin has any chance at charisma anyway. But the Pope was really cool and pretty much took over D.C. this week.

Francis Hugs Sophie

After meeting with the President the Pope took a brief tour in the Pope-mobile and greeted the crowds around the nearby Ellipse. Little Sophie Cruz, the five-year-old daughter of undocumented immigrants, slipped through the street barriers and was grabbed by the security detail. The Pope called for her to come to him and the guards lifted her up for an embrace. She gave him a t-shirt and a note with a drawing celebrating the diversity of color among her friends. The message on the shirt, “Papa Rescate DAPA,” asks the Pope to save the deferred prosecution policy of the Administration that could keep her parents from deportation.

If you missed this magical little moment you can google up any number of news stories to see how a loving Francis gives an abrazo to a brave little girl.

Is the Pope Catholic?

Thursday morning the Pope addressed the U.S. Congress to the chagrin of many who see him as at best mistaken or at worst an evil force in the world. The Pope spoke about immigration and climate change in spite of the outpouring of scorn from the right. Rush Limbaugh calls him a Marxist. Right wing radio host Alex Jones claims that Francis is a socialist tool. Columnist George Will panned the Pope’s position on climate change as “reactionary.”

It goes on and on – Communist, hostile to free enterprise, under the influence of global warming extremists. Those who fail to understand that global warming and how we treat our immigrant neighbors are moral issues have not established credentials to preach.

In one of those tiny little ironies that we so enjoy, we note that, when the Pope spoke about how the Golden Rule should lead us to respect human life at all of its stages, the anti-abortion gang rose and cheered, expecting an affirmation of their ideology. When this immediately turned into a plea for the abolition of the death penalty, they all sat down.

Congress

It is becoming apparent that we need a new pill designed to prevent unwanted government shutdowns. After showing initial promise, the abstinence approach seems to have completely broken down and, without an effective form of pharmaceutical intervention, the leadership might have to resort to “troubling” surgical procedures in order to prevent this issue from coming to term.

Neither Speaker Boehner nor Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want another shutdown, but they can’t seem to prevent the adolescents from messing around. No matter what the parents want, the kids are reacting to their primal instincts.  The anti-choice contingent wants the government to be shut down rather than to permit any funds going to Planned Parenthood.

Here’s a little problem for the anti-choice, first stone throwers – Planned Parenthood has not used federal money for abortions for decades due to a little something known as the Hyde Amendment.  So the shutdown crowd actually is after the counseling, pre-natal care and contraception programs provided by the organization, not abortion.

On a procedural vote, the Senate stopped efforts to pass Planned Parenthood de-funding language in a Continuing Resolution intended to give the short term funding needed to avoid a shutdown.  It looks as though Majority Leader McDonnell might be able to get through some bill that keeps the government running for a while and Boehner’s surprise announcement probably means something like it will pass the House.

Highway Funding

The debate over the big shutdown should be over in a week or so and then they will start in on efforts to change the tax code to the advantage of the big multinational corporations. Their excuse for taking this up is the need to do something about the Highway Trust Fund. Back in August they passed a temporary fix that keeps the Trust going until October 29.  It was the 34th extension of this fund dating back to the 2008 recession. None of these fixes really did anything to leap forward and begin modernizing the rail system, no real growth and expansion like they are doing in Europe or China.

Infrastructure planning by chaos. Now the need for money just to keep the Fund afloat for a while is being used as blackmail in order to “reform” the international tax code in order to let the corporations further reduce their tax obligations.

Presidential Stuff

Lots of media fascination with Donald Trump, but the really big story that has lasting implications is the success of Bernie Sanders.

Sanders represents a long standing strain in American political history – Populism.  This political voice often has emerged in times of economic tension, but it has never won a national election. If Sanders wins the nomination it presages a fascinating and critical national debate about our direction as a democracy. No matter who his opponent, the debate will be about the influence of wealth in a democracy.

As is common this early in the season, the polls are jumping around. Some see Hillary in the resurgence. Some put Sanders ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire. Some speculate about the influence of a Biden candidacy as bad for Bernie. But none of them count Sanders out and his ability to raise small donor money suggests that he is in to the end.

A couple of Sanders’ vulnerabilities. First, sometimes Sanders is a Socialist. He seems to being finessing this issue by pointing to Democratic Socialism like the practice in Scandinavia rather than the Soviet Union. Sanders has to develop a rapport with people of color communities. God knows he is trying, but he screwed up at the beginning by framing the whole question in economic terms – everyone gets a job and all is cool.

Black Lives Matter has chased him around making the point that there is a fundamental race issue that needs to be confronted or the economic stuff is irrelevant. People of color seem to resonate with Hillary better than Bernie.

Assuming that Sanders can figure out the Black Lives Matter matter, he will next face another challenge on the foreign policy front. Do you have any idea where Sanders stands on the matter of the balance of power in Eastern Europe, China’s aggression in the South China Sea, the Muddle East? Americans like to think that they are running the place and any sign from the leftish Sanders that we lack total control will be challenged as cowardice, effeminacy, and appeasement.

The wild and crazy guys on the Republican side are suddenly trying to figure out what to do with the wild and crazy gal. The pundits suggest that Carly Fiorina, won the last R Debate. Trump is down Fiorina up.

Carson is backtracking a bit on his contention that a Muslim presidency would be unconstitutional. “If someone has a Muslim background and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion, then, of course. They will be considered infidels and heretics, but at least I would then be quite willing to support them,” Carson told Fox News. There are some who wonder how this might play with the evangelical set – heretics who place the Constitution above their religion may not meet the highest evangelical standards.

Bush looks like a detective who has been asked to solve a locked room mystery in which the victim is inside and all the exits are securely sealed. Jeb is hanging in there though and the bloggers suggest that he continues to build an organizational base in primary states.

Governor Scott Walker, after watching his poll numbers drop down to Lincoln Chaffee’s levels, decided to give it up. He offered what apparently is a Republican Party plan to do in Donald Trump – get all the candidates who are not doing very well to clear out and let the less unsuccessful challenge Trump.  Apparently this idea is designed for the consideration of candidates like Graham, Pataki, Jindal, Gilmore, and Santorum who are barely making a mark on the polls.

If you want to judge how the various candidates are doing based on stuff like money raised, endorsements and polling, the New York Times has prepared a handy guide to power rankings. By this guide Clinton and Bush lead their respective races. Bush is followed by Rubio, Trump, Fiorina and Carson. On the D side, the Biden-the-Undecided is second followed by Sanders, O’Malley and what’s his name from Virginia.

The First Amendment

We have to look out for the wolves in shepherd’s clothing. There is a little something known as the First Amendment Defense Act and is filed as H. R. 2802. The bill purports to be a defense of religious liberty – preventing pastors from having to perform same sex marriages – something that plainly needs no defense.  But its language is so broadly drawn that it would permit discrimination against women who have children out of wedlock and permit religious schools to discriminate against gays and still get federal money. Is this the sort of stuff you want your Congress to be passing?

It is sponsored by Representative Raul Labrador from R-Idaho and has 148 co-sponsors. The only D on the list is Representative Daniel Lipinski from Illinois.

Klepto Corporations

We always knew that this was a possibility, but Volkswagen now has given us a reason to expand the klepto sector to include corporations other than the financial institutions that have led the way in this category. The Volkswagen CEO resigned this week because of the revelation that his company had used a software designed to trick automobile inspections in the U.S. into believing that their diesel engines were meeting emission standards when in fact they were not. Reports in Europe this week suggest that BMW might be caught up in this problem as well.

Is this guy using?

If you needed any proof that the pharmaceutical policies of the country are crazazzie you now have it.  One drug company bought another drug company and acquired the product Daraprim that is used to fight parasitic infections in AIDS and cancer patients. It has been around for decades selling for the hefty price of $13.50 a pill. A fellow called Martin Shkreli, the CEO of the new owner company, announced that they were going to raise the price a mere 4,000 percent plus to $750 a pill. Wow. They can do that? Yep, they can do it and be protected by patent law and prohibitions on the government’s ability to negotiate drug prices.  When questioned about why they were doing this, Shkreli called the asking reporter a “moron.”

The outrage among doctors, patients, press and public was so strong that Shkreli eventuallyannounced that his company would lower the price to a “more affordable” level.  We don’t want to appear moronic, so we quietly ask the question: “What does he regard as more affordable?” Indeed does this fellow have any idea what ”affordable” might mean?

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Yogi Berra died. But if there ever was a pop culture immortal he is it.  Everyone seems to know him for his quirky sayings, but he was a hell of a catcher. He once went through a record 148 games without an error. As a kid I watched on TV as he called pitches in Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game.

Bill Daley, National Legislative Director

 

Price-Gouging AIDS & Cancer Patients? By-Product of a Broken System

Martin Shkreli wants you to swallow his bitter pill — and to thank him for making you pay $750 for it.

For 62 years, the drug Daraprim has been the standard method to treat parasitic infections that are particularly life-threatening to AIDS and cancer patients. It was relatively affordable — though low-income patients might take issue with calling an $18 pill “affordable” — and highly effective in treating these infections.

Then last month, Shkreli and his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, came along and acquired rights to the drug. Their contribution to better the lives of these patients?

Jacking up the price 4,000 percent. Continue reading “Price-Gouging AIDS & Cancer Patients? By-Product of a Broken System”

Racial Segregation: Righting the Wrong and Making Restitution

At a time in history when crime continues to decline, same-sex marriage is legal, and innovation is powering advances in technology and bioengineering – one issue fails to progress: racial justice.

The unemployment rate for African-Americans continues to be more than twice that of whites. Public schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s and young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than their white equivalents.

Widespread media coverage and outcry at the murders inside the African-American church in Charleston, and protests sparked by the killings of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, transform the statistics into real faces.

Yet outside the political sphere, there is a continued lack of recognition and acknowledgement in the U.S. that institutionalized racism and white privilege are pervasive.

Derald Wing Sue – professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, internationally acknowledged expert on multiculturalism and diversity, and author of Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence – said he asks his students:

“How many of you socialize with people who are racially, culturally different than yourself? How many of you go into communities of color to celebrate the community events, to attend Asian Baptist churches, the black churches, how many of you do that? How many of you live in an integrated neighborhood?”

The reality here is that residential racial segregation is condoning a system of institutionalized racism where specific demographics are bearing the inevitable, negative consequences of policies set by those in power. Ultimately, race – a social construct – becomes a crucial factor in the outcome of violence whether that violence be physical, economic, political, or legal.

In the Architecture of Segregation Paul Jargowsky describes the rapid re-concentration of poverty since 2000. The concentrated poverty is racial in nature and the result of measured policy choice. Exclusionary zoning has developed with the movement and investment toward suburban neighborhoods. The wealthier suburbs reject affordable housing, keeping poor and low-income individuals in the city or fading suburbs.

Ruth Peterson, retired professor of Sociology at Ohio State University and former director of the Criminal Justice Research Center, and Lauren Krivo, professor of Sociology and affiliated professor in Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, introduce the concept of racial-spatial divide in their work Divergent Social Worlds: Neighborhood Crime and the Racial-Spatial Divide. In an extensive study accumulating crime and related data for 9,593 neighborhoods in 91 cities in the year 2000, the authors verify a connection between race, place, and crime, and prove that residential segregation is the principle reason why social worlds of people are so opposing. In short, the disadvantaged are isolated from the advantaged, and it runs across racial lines.

What the Architecture of Segregation Report and racial-spatial divide illustrate are two neighborhood studies showcasing structural housing policies – which stem from racial segregation – making particular groups more susceptible to cases of violence. Exclusionary zoning and private discrimination create the concentration of urban poverty, which inevitably means education disadvantages, labor disadvantages, increased welfare dependency, social disorder, and a loss of commercial business.

And it is an argument made again and again as young men like Michael Brown are killed on the streets, igniting a demand for change, but progress is still invisible and emotions raw a year later.

In a powerful reflection on race, John Metta, an African American who spoke to an all white audience at the Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in White Salmon, Wash. said: “… People are dying not because individuals are racist, but because individuals are helping support a racist system by wanting to protect their own non-racist self beliefs.”

In the realm of racial justice, personal choice significantly reflects public policy and vice versa. Evident, are not only structural housing policies gone wrong, but also an inability to call them out.

If we commit an active effort in putting ourselves in unfamiliar situations, events, and discussions where authentic relationships and conversations can be cultivated, we can convert an increased understanding of institutionalized racism into righting the wrong and making restitution. We like to consider ourselves nondiscriminatory, multicultural, bias-free, and nonracist – yet this has yet to be transcended to a point where we are open to living side by side with each other.

It is time to demand that our political dogmas reflect the inclusive, nondiscriminatory attributes we claim to have. But first, we must represent those qualities outright.

Andrea Rocha is senior at the University of Washington and an intern at the Alliance for a Just Society. 

Voting Rights Restored

John Mahan never worried about voting, it didn’t seem important. He was young and he figured he had many years ahead of him to vote for politicians, and laws didn’t really seem to personally affect him anyway.

Then, in 1986, the young Virginia man was arrested and convicted of a felony. Mahan was finally released from prison in his 40s. And although he had regained his freedom, he had lost his right to vote.

“I never voted before I went to prison, I never thought it was important,” said Mahan, who lives in Martinsville, on the southern edge of Virginia. “I figured whoever got elected would just do whatever they wanted.”

Virginia has historically been among a dozen or so states with impossibly steep hurdles for restoring access to voting rights. The most difficult for many is the requirement to pay off all court costs, fines, and fees before the right to vote is restored.

Now that’s changing. In June, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that formerly incarcerated people no longer have to pay off their court costs, fines, or any restitution before their rights are restored. They’re still responsible for those debts – but they will be able to vote while paying them off.

Eliminating the requirement of paying court fines and fees is a critical step in restoring those rights, said Mahan.

In Martinsville, where he lives, the economy still struggles. Textile and furniture industries with familiar names like Fieldcrest, Stanley, and Bassett, once paid workers good wages – until the work moved overseas. Now jobs are few, and they pay less.

Finding a job and saving enough to pay fees – which often come burdened with interest – can take years.

Unfortunately many states still withhold voting rights from formerly incarcerated people who have court-related debts.

Virginia is one of two states that grant the authority of restoring voting rights only to the governor. For decades, going to prison in Virginia meant being banned from voting until the governor restored those rights – a long and arduous process that took years to complete.

But since January 2014, Virginia has restored civil rights for more than 8,250 people. In his first 18 months in office, McAuliffe restored voting rights for more people than any previous governor during a full four-year term. Nearly 75 percent of those with restored rights have registered to vote.

At a time when some states are digging deep for new rules to disenfranchise voters, especially Black, Latino and Native people, McAuliffe’s actions stand out.

Last year, McAuliffe reduced the intimidating13-page application form requesting restoration of rights for serious offenders down to just one page.

Nearly six million Americans are unable to vote because of a past criminal conviction, according to the Brennan Center. Nationwide, 13 percent of all African-American men have lost their right to vote – seven times the national average.

To outsiders, the turn-about in Virginia may seem sudden. Yet organizers and activists in Virginia know it has been a 15-year effort, hard fought in every community, with many disappointments along the way.

Virginia Organizing, a leading group in the effort, plans to keep working toward a complete turnaround of the old laws. The goal: voting rights restored automatically upon completion of sentencing requirements. It will require a state constitutional amendment.

“That’s my dream,” said Mahan, “For a person to have their voting rights restored automatically, as soon as they are released from probation. It just makes sense.”

After leaving prison a few years ago, Mahan became active in his community – and he wanted to vote. The application process at the time was the oppressive 13-page version. It required reference letters from friends, and many months to process. It required him to pay off his legal fines before he could even begin applying.

“It was discouraging, it was too much for a person to go through, so I put it aside,” he said. Mahan eventually filled out the pages of forms and references and had his civil rights – including the right to vote – restored. It took nine months for the paperwork to be processed.

He voted for the first time at age 52, and next he’s looking forward to voting in a presidential election for the first time.

“I talk to everyone I meet about getting their voting rights restored, people at the grocery store, people at church. If we don’t vote, we don’t have a voice,” he said.

“When I go talk to the Martinsville City Council, or the Henry County Board of Supervisors, they know I vote. They know I encourage others to vote, and I think they have a tendency to listen a little closer to what I have to say,” he said.

These days, he wouldn’t think of missing an opportunity to vote.

“Every time there is an election, John Mahan will be there,” he said.

Prison Reform, a Step Toward Racial Equality and Respect

Last month, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison as he begins pushing congress to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.

Obama is urging meaningful sentencing reform, steps to reduce repeat offenders, and reform for the juvenile justice system to improve public safety, reduce runaway incarceration costs and make the criminal justice system fairer – and for good reason. The U.S. criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.

To start, the system is riddled with racial bias and inequity. In 2011, the New York City Police Department made more stops of young black men than there are young black men in the city. Nearly one in three black men are imprisoned in their lifetime, while only one in 17 white men are imprisoned. When sentenced, black men are sent to prison for periods that are up to about 20 percent longer than white male defendants with similar crimes.

Sixty percent of incarcerated persons are black or Hispanic, even though they compromise only 28.6 percent of the population combined. While African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 40 percent of prisoners are black. According to Politifact, an organization that investigates and evaluates public political statements, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid – a reality that should quickly put the issue into perspective.

In addition, over the last four decades, the number of incarcerated persons increased 500 percent, and now includes about 2.2 million adults in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons. The number of women in prison increased 832 percent between 1997 and 2007 while the male population grew by 416 percent during the same 30-year period. Black women are more than six times as likely as white women to be incarcerated during their lifetimes.

Despite crime rates steadily declining during the last 25 years, incarceration rates have risen steeply. While increasing police force sizes can be an effective crime reduction strategy, studies suggest long prison sentences have little effect on crime rates. What this tells us? The resources spent confining people to boxes, for years and years, proliferates a system not even proven to work.

Policy decisions such as mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeated offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity, have also added to the explosion of state and federal prison populations. While the portion of persons in state prisons convicted of violent crimes makes up more than half that population, at the federal level violent crime accounts for only 7 percent of the federal prison population. More than 1/3 of the federal prison population is black, and more than 1/3 is Hispanic, yet those figures pale in comparison to the demographics of state prisons, where there are more than 5.5 times as many black inmates as there are white inmates.

Further, state spending on correction has outpaced spending on most other government functions, and in most states it is the third largest expenditure category behind education and healthcare.

At these costs, we might expect prisoners’ most basic economic rights to be respected. But that’s not what we find. Nearly half of the U.S. prison population works, but “the median wage [earned by inmates] in state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents respectively.” Because incarcerated persons do not qualify as “employees” under the law, they do not have labor rights.

Many see this as an extension of 19th century slavery due to its historical legacy. The comparison is not far from the truth. In three states – Texas, Georgia and Arkansas – inmates work for free.

So where does this put us and what should reform look like?

In light of these numbers we must not only recognize the inadequate state of our criminal justice system, but also demand a response to change it.

Meaningful reform must:

  1. Target racial bias by fighting institutional and structural inequities
  2. Reduce prison populations in a responsible manner (for example through rehabilitation and reintegration of incarcerated persons)
  3. Provide measures to enforce inmates’ human rights.

Likewise, the president and congress should urge states to follow suit.

#BlackLivesMatter. #UnitedWeFight.

Saturday, a group of ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ activists protested at a Seattle public event to celebrate decades of Social Security and Medicare. Our affiliate organization, Washington Community Action Network! was a cosponsor of the event. The event featured U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Sen. Sanders was unable to speak to the crowd because of the protest.

The issues of Social Security, Medicare and racist police violence are issues that are very important to us, our organizations and our grassroots members. It should be noted that other speakers earlier in the event spoke about the urgency and importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement on the eve of the one year anniversary of the killing of ‪#‎MikeBrown‬ in‪#‎Ferguson‬, MO.

We understand why some rally participants were frustrated not to hear Sen. Sanders as planned, but we are very disturbed that some in the crowd demanded that protestors be arrested and heckled during the short moment of silence for Mike Brown.

As long as the killing of black people remains a crisis in this country activists will demand that #BlackLivesMatter be front and center on the national agenda. And it should be. But we also believe that there are other important and pressing issues facing working people and communities of color. We think there is room for conversations on all these issues and more in Congress, along the Presidential campaign trail, in statehouses and in the public debate.

The candidates will all have to improve their response to the crisis of police violence and mass incarceration, and all of us will have to learn to work together, broaden our understanding of issues — even those that don’t directly effect us — and deepen our sense of solidarity. Sometimes that means making room for issues that aren’t our personal priority. Sometimes that means being uncomfortable.

That’s why it is so appropriate that organizers in Ferguson this weekend are using the slogan ‪#‎UnitedWeFight‬. It will take a united fight to change police practices in this country, as well as to expand Medicaid, defend Social Security and Medicare and win a better world for all.