A fugitive people within a nation is tyranny.

Posts tagged ‘regulation’

Child Support: Income That Doesn’t Exist’

clinton-child-support-celebration

Human rights in the USA

“When people have orders that they can’t comply with, it doesn’t motivate them to work and pay. It does the opposite,” says Turetsky of the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

She says too many men quit jobs, turn down promotions or go underground when courts set child support orders too high. One problem, she says, is that when there’s no evidence of income, many jurisdictions “impute” it, often basing payments on a full-time minimum wage job.

“I’m going to call it magical thinking,” Vicki Turetsky says. “You could call it the income we think you should have. But the bottom line is that it is income that does not exist.”

The child support system was set up four decades ago, and Turetsky says it seems stuck there — as if a man with no college can still walk into a factory tomorrow and pull down middle-class wages. In fact, a large majority of child support debt is owed by men who make less than $10,000 a year.

“We’re asking that [women and children] become dependent on men who are just as poor as they are,” says Jacquelyn Boggess of the Center for Family Policy and Practice.

When parents face incarceration for nonpayment, it can burden entire families. Boggess has seen men’s mothers, even their ex-girlfriends or wives, step in to pay to keep a father out of jail. And child support debt never goes away, even if you declare bankruptcy or when the children grow up.

“We found that there are 20- and 30-year-old children who are paying their father’s child support debt, so their father can keep whatever small income they may have,” she says.

child-support-poverty-burden

Balancing Responsibility And Reality

Among the Obama administration’s proposed changes to child support rules is a provision barring states from letting child support pile up in prison. There is wide support for that, even among conservatives.

“Everyone agrees, yes, we should be tough,” says Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “But if a father goes to jail for five years, should he owe $15,000 in child support when he comes out? You know that guy’s never going to have $15,000 in his whole life.”

More controversially, the administration wants to make sure child support orders are based on a parent’s actual income.

“We can’t be naive when we’re dealing with parents who have walked away from providing for their children,” says Robert Doar, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Doar, who used to head child support enforcement in New York state, says there will always be some parents who go to great lengths to hide income. He does support suspending debt during incarceration and more job training programs — but he worries that the proposed changes would make it too easy to dismiss cases as “uncollectible.”

“We’re talking about poor, single parents, often moms,” he says. “And the child support collections that they get, when they get it, represents 45 percent of their income.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have filed bills to block the proposed regulations. They worry they’ll undermine the principle of personal responsibility, a hallmark of child support enforcement measures in the 1990s. They also say any regulatory changes should be made through Congress, not the administration.

Child Support, Prison & Crushing Debt

child support shacklesOf the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, about half are parents, and at least 1 in 5 has a child-support obligation. For most, the debt will keep piling up throughout their imprisonment: By law or by practice, child-support agencies in much of the country consider incarceration a form of “voluntary impoverishment.” Parents like Harris, the logic goes, have only themselves to blame for not earning a living. But that may be about to change.

childsupportchart2016

What does this tell you about overdue child support?

Republicans opposed to new regulations

The Obama administration has authorized a new set of regulations that would reclassify incarceration as “involuntary,” giving parents the right to push the pause button on child-support payments. The regulations are set to be published early next year and implemented by states by 2017.

Congressional Republicans oppose the new policy. They argue that it would undercut the 1996 welfare reform act, which pressed states to locate missing fathers and bill them for child support so taxpayers wouldn’t bear the full burden of their children’s welfare. (What idiots, the debt can’t be paid anyway.)

“I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a speech in June on the Senate floor. Obama’s new regulations, he said, “would undermine a key feature of welfare reform, which is that single mothers can avoid welfare if fathers comply with child-support orders.”

Frances Pardus-Abbadessa, head of child-support enforcement for New York City, said: “The complaint we often hear is, ‘Why should incarcerated fathers, of all people, be the ones to get a break from their obligations — and at a cost to the taxpayer?’ “

Administration officials and their supporters counter that billing fathers while they’re in prison does little but dig them deeper into debt.

“Billing poor fathers doesn’t help poor mothers and kids become less poor,” said Jacquelyn Boggess, a poverty expert with the Center for Family Policy and Practice.

“All it creates,” she said, “is a highly indebted individual.”

Debt piles up

For Earl Harris, the problem was keeping up. He had a job in prison, cleaning the kitchen, but it paid only $7.50 a month — well short of the $168 the state of Missouri was billing him.

“Didn’t they know I was in prison?” he asks. “Weren’t they the ones that put me in there?”

When he got out in 2001, the unpaid amount was listed on his credit report — and pursued by an agency with the power to garnish 65 percent of his wages, intercept his tax returns, freeze his bank account, suspend his driver’s license and, if he failed to pay, lock him up again. By then, his debt had surged to more than $10,000.

Harris entered barbering school but soon returned to drug dealing and was thrown back into prison for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, his child-support debt swelled to more than $25,000.

Incarceration currently deemed ‘voluntary’

Harris’s plight is not unusual. The Marshall Project interviewed nearly three dozen noncustodial parents in 10 states; they all left prison owing between $10,000 and $110,000 in child support. Mostly fathers who are disproportionately black and poor, these parents faced prosecution for not repaying the debt, even after their children were grown.

And what they were able to pay did not necessarily go to their children or the mother. The state often kept their money as repayment for welfare, child care or Medicaid benefits that had been provided to the family while the dad was locked up.

To address the issue, the Obama administration began drafting new rules about four years ago. As currently written, the rules would forbid state child-support agencies from classifying incarceration as “voluntary,” granting parents the legal right to a reduction in payments while they’re in prison, a right that does not exist in 14 states.

The rules would require agencies to inform incarcerated parents of this right and would encourage agencies to provide a reduction in payments automatically. And they would urge states to transfer all payments directly to custodial parents — mostly mothers — and their children.

The administration proposal would provide about $35 million over the next five years to modernize the child-support system and to provide job training, job placement, bus fare, and other services to fathers facing prosecution for nonpayment.

The rule “will make sure that arrears don’t accumulate endlessly while a parent is incarcerated,” said Vicki Turetsky, President Barack Obama’s commissioner of child-support enforcement. “Our goal is to collect, month by month, for kids. We can do that when parents are employed, not in debt.”

Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have introduced legislation to block the new rules, though neither lawmaker has pushed to advance the measure.

Ron Haskins, a child-support expert at the Brookings Institution, said he and other conservatives actually support parts of the new regulations. But they worry, he said, that the policy “could begin a long process of undermining the child-support concept, which they strongly believe in.”

The struggle after prison

Back in North St. Louis, Earl Harris, now 38, has put in his hours as an apprentice barber and is one written test away from getting his license. In the meantime, he is living in a halfway house and working at a factory across the river in Illinois, packaging Febreze canisters and Swiffer mops.

His hours are 4 p.m. to midnight, though he arrives an hour early to make sure he doesn’t lose his spot to another temp worker waiting outside the building in hopes of getting a shift. After work, he typically gets a cousin to drive him back to his dorm room, where he sleeps from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. before heading to his daily support group for fathers.

By 8 a.m. the dads are circled up, talking about having kids and debt. They have come because the program helps them find a job, develop strategies for handling their arrears and work on their parenting skills. They also get free legal help. Many of them were incarcerated, almost exclusively for selling drugs, and everyone is wearing a jacket and tie, the uniform of employment.

One father, Louis Moore, said his debt soared to almost $60,000 while he was inside. Allan Newcomer’s is more than $68,000. “Everybody in the penitentiaries was getting the letters,” Newcomer said.

Lisl Williams, a former judge who now works with the fathers, said even if they spend their money on food, clothes or toys for their children, it does not reduce their debt. In many cases, she said, the whole family — the mother, aunts, uncles, cousins — chips in to help pay it, and then the money they pay goes to the government as repayment for welfare they received long ago.

Because the fathers don’t have large incomes to garnish, bank accounts to tap or property to seize, she adds, they are more likely to face re-incarceration for not paying their arrears.

‘I know I’m the bad man’ (Oh, really?)

Another dad, Corey Mason, said he was incarcerated and already racking up child-support debt when he got a notice saying he might have another child by a different mother. He was instructed to go to the medical wing, get a DNA swab and send it to the agency. When they confirmed his paternity, he started getting a new set of child-support bills.

Mason sent several handwritten letters to the agency explaining that he was in prison. He said he never got a response. (So who is really bad? You know!)

Now that he’s out, Mason has a job at the Marriott hotel downtown. He works the graveyard shift, cleaning, shutting down the bar, providing towels to customers who ask for extra. Because the child-support agency garnishes well over half his weekly paycheck, he turned down a recent promotion.

“I want to grow in the company. But I don’t want to work that much harder if they’re just going to take all of it to pay for history,” Mason said.

“I know I’m the bad man. But I’m working harder now than I ever have, and it’s like this is designed to keep me behind, backed up against the wall, in debt for the rest of my life.” (Hear the defeat and fear? That’s what they want!)

Obama: ‘Too many fathers M.I.A, AWOL’

Obama has frequently scolded the same absentee fathers who now stand to benefit from his regulations. “Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” he told a Chicago audience in 2008 as a candidate for president.

Some fathers interviewed for this story had multiple children — one man said he had 12 — by different mothers. Many seemed less than eager to find employment. A few served time for domestic violence.

Some mothers say these men do not deserve to be freed of their debt.

“There’s a real tension here, as a matter of public policy,” said Joan Entmacher, an expert on family poverty at the National Women’s Law Center. “There are absolutely fathers who evade their responsibilities, saying, ‘Oh, I can’t pay that,’ and not even trying. We don’t want to simply reward that attitude.”

Even if a father is a deadbeat, however, the evidence is clear: Noncustodial fathers are far more likely to pay child support, and otherwise reengage with their families, if payments are manageable.

In a 2012 study by the Center for Policy Research, a private nonprofit research organization, fathers paid a much higher percentage of their monthly obligations when offered relief from unpayable state-owed debt. In studies in Maryland, Illinois and California, fewer than 15 percent remained noncompliant once the old debts were reduced and they were given a schedule of regular payments. And the fathers most likely to abide by “debt compromise” agreements were those who had been incarcerated.

Boggess, the child-support analyst, said that trying to collect the accumulated debt is “like squeezing an empty bottle and hoping something comes out.

“These fathers are poor, period. Their arrears are uncollectible, period,” she said. “They’ve never even met anyone who had $30,000.”

States taking action

Many states have already taken action. In 36 states and the District, incarceration is no longer officially considered “voluntary” impoverishment, and an imprisoned father is legally entitled to have his monthly child-support bill modified to as little as $50 a month or, in rare cases, stopped altogether.

But it is still up to the father to prove he is incarcerated, and then to file for the reduction. This involves navigating a maze of paperwork from prison, usually with no lawyer, irregular access to phones and, in many cases, an eighth- or ninth-grade education.

The most common pitfall, said Bo Twiggs, the director of UpNext, a program in New York City that helps recently incarcerated fathers, is that the incarcerated dad has no idea his child support is piling up because he isn’t getting the notices. The debt keeps compounding – and federal law prohibits the reduction of child-support bills retroactively.

“It’s hard for these fathers to understand that they can’t wait, they can’t adjust to life in prison before dealing with child support, that they need to take action immediately because the debt will be permanent,” Twiggs said. “That’s really counterintuitive.”

When these fathers get out of prison, they often don’t notice the debt until the state begins pursuing it, “which forces them to go underground instead of rejoining the formal economy,” said Turetsky, Obama’s commissioner of child-support enforcement.

Indeed, research shows that the two most important factors in a former prisoner’s successful reentry into the community are employment and positive relationships with family. Both of these are hindered by the aggressive pursuit of child-support arrears: Garnishing 65 percent of a father’s paycheck, so he is tempted to earn cash off the books; suspending his driver’s license so he can’t get to work; sending him bills that are so far beyond his capacity to pay that he keeps his distance from his family.

“I see it all the time,” Twiggs said: “Not reengaging with the family. Noncompliance with parole and child support. Under-the-table efforts at income. Self-defeat, high anxiety, general institutional distrust. All of that is triggered by this absolutely overwhelming, impossible feeling of debt.”

portions from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Putting Down the Inquisition of Law

by Gerard V. Bradley

we the peopleFrom the ever-expanding number of federal criminal laws to prison sentences that are too numerous or too long, there are many promising bases for criticizing overcriminalization. One such basis, however, has yet to be fully exploited for its potential to limit overcriminalization: the fact that too many criminal offenses today are malum prohibitum offenses—that is, they criminalize conduct that is morally innocuous—and do not contain an adequate mens rea (criminal-intent) element. These offenses often capture conduct that would otherwise be natural and even desirable in business, commerce, accounting, or everyday life. The primary instances discussed throughout this paper are strict liability regulatory offenses (referred to as the “central case”).[1]

In order to limit the growth of laws criminalizing morally innocuous conduct—a development which, in turn, would curb overcriminalization—the U.S. legal community would be well-served to explore the concept of retribution and the manner in which it provides an account of how punishing those convicted of criminal offenses is morally justified. Indeed, punishment without a firm basis in retribution is unjust and therefore should be avoided.

Using the principle of retribution to critique overcriminalization may seem paradoxical for two separate reasons. The first arises from widespread and sometimes grotesque misunderstandings of retribution, such that it is often caricatured to mean lock up as many people as possible for very long times. In truth, however, retribution has no built-in tendency toward severity. The second criticism arises from the fact that retribution is a justification for punishment and not a theory about substantive criminal law. But what justifies also limits. Retribution offers solid moral bases for opposing overcriminalization.
Criticisms and Confusion: Toward a Proper Understanding of Retribution

Confusion about retribution, and about the moral justification for punishment more generally, is rampant. Almost nothing in standard first-year criminal law casebooks gets it right.[2] Scholarly literature is scarcely more helpful. Legislative reformers rarely understand it and, by all accounts, never accord it the central place that it needs to occupy if the institution of punishment is to be adequately justified. High state court authority is just as confused.

This widespread misunderstanding is one reason why retribution is so neglected today. Indeed, if retribution really did mean what people seem to think it means, then it ought to be neglected. But retribution is not lex talionis, the law of retaliation—“an eye for an eye”[3]—as many think it is.

To apply the “eye for an eye” norm non-metaphorically, a polity would have to be willing to do whatever its most depraved members might do. Probably no society has so abandoned moral constraint in the pursuit of criminal justice. It is true that “eye for an eye” is found in the Bible and was apparently meant to serve as a practical guide for the ancient Israelites, but biblical scholars have explained that the “eye for an eye” axiom was not an authorization of punishment or even a command to exact a like penalty. It was instead meant to limit retaliatory acts by kin and friends of the victim to no more than the loss incurred.[4]

The historical prevalence and perennial allure of retaliatory excess—vendettas, blood feuds, lynchings, and the like—no doubt had much to do with the emergence of public systems of criminal justice. According to Oxford legal philosopher John Gardner, it was “for the elimination of these modes of retaliation, more than anything else, the criminal law as we know it today came into existence.”[5] Even so, society must distinguish between this—what Gardner calls the “displacement function” of criminal law and punishment—and its critical moral justification. For there is no necessary connection, either logically or practically, between a practice’s origins and its critical moral worth. It is easy to see, too, that the “displacement function” cannot morally justify defining some conduct as a crime or imposing criminal punishment on anyone.

Notwithstanding some historical kinship with retaliation, retribution properly understood as a critical moral proposition is not about domesticating popular hatred for a known criminal. It is not about channeling repugnance toward a particularly heinous crime. It is not state-orchestrated revenge. Retribution is not driven by anger, hatred, or any other emotion; it is distinct from community outrage. It is perhaps admissible to hold that these pacific tendencies are one desired effect or function of punishment, but that is not to say that retribution’s tendency to pacify the passions of victims of crime and their communities constitutes a moral justification for punishment: It certainly does not. Mob-conducted lynchings and similar acts of cruelty and injustice are also capable of pacifying community outrage for (real or perceived) wrongdoing, but civilized society condemns such conduct.
Against the Transfer Justification of Punishment

H.L.A. Hart, one of the leading legal philosophers of the 20th century, famously argued that society may impose punishment on an offender only where society has been “harmed.” He identified two types of harms: where the authority of law is diminished and where a member of society is injured.[6] Hart’s first category could be mistaken for an awkward description of the retributive view described here, but his view of crime and punishment was very different from the one that is considered in this paper.

Hart’s second harm—that a member of society is injured—points toward a deeper investigation of the moral relationship between the institution of punishment and private rights. Hart is scarcely alone in holding this view. Richard Swinburne has argued that the state enjoys authority to impose punishment for criminal harm only where it serves as a proxy for the individual victim,[7] and he said that this was a retributive viewpoint.

Swinburne and Hart apparently imagine a state of nature similar to that described by John Locke: a notional place where individuals hold a natural moral right to punish those who harm them.[8] When these individuals band together to form a civil society, these thinkers (Swinburne, Hart, and perhaps Locke) suppose that they transfer their natural authority to punish to the emergent political authority, so the state punishes as agent or delegate of the community—conceived as an aggregate of individual rights-bearers, now standing down.

This whole line of thought is mistaken. Civil society does not punish as transferee or delegate of the victim. Civil society punishes in its own name for its own sake because civil society itself is the victim of each and every crime. Indeed, central political authority and its authoritative directives for the common good—laws—are a necessary precondition to and are conceptually derived from the institution of punishment.

There are two additional compelling arguments against the transfer justification of punishment theory.

First, as a matter of contingent fact, criminal acts often do involve an injustice to one or more specific persons: the defrauded elderly lady, the black-eyed assault victim, the hapless pedestrian whose car was stolen. But many crimes lack any such unwilling, particularized victim. Among these offenses are many public morals laws (drug possession, gambling, and prostitution); offenses against the state (including treason, espionage, and lying to the grand jury); and “quality of life” crimes (littering and public intoxication). In these cases, it is often far from obvious which individuals, if any, have a natural right to punish those who did them harm.

Second, there is good reason to doubt the premise of the transferor theory: namely, that there exists a natural right to punish those who do wrong to oneself or to one’s kin. People do have a natural right to defend themselves against attack and theft. People do have a natural right (within limits) to take back any goods that have been wrongfully taken from them. People do have a natural right to demand some remedy for vandalism or other wrongful deprivation of property. And people have a natural right to use force that is reasonable in amount and kind in order to accomplish those goals. But all these rights bundled together do not yield, imply, or entail a natural right to punish, because the nature of punishment differs from the nature of self-defense, replevin, or restitution. Nor do these rights promise moral justification of criminal punishment (even if they perhaps do provide justification for an inchoate tort system and an embryonic joint protective or police association).

Wicked deeds are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for morally justified punishment. Individuals regularly witness acts of injustice by others—lying spouses, cruel parents, disrespectful children, cheating colleagues—but it scarcely occurs to those witnessing these acts that they, as individuals, are authorized to punish those bad actions. Moreover, even if it is presumed that person A misbehaves and that his misbehavior warrants the judgment “A deserves to be punished,” it does not follow that B, C, D, or anyone else has the moral authority to punish A. Even in advanced legal systems, violations of law do not automatically authorize anyone to punish the violator; only certain officials wielding designated powers according to the relevant positive law are designated competent to punish others.
Civil Authorities and the Imposition of Punishment

Punishing a criminal involves the deliberate imposition by the political community’s administrative arm—the state—of some privation or harm upon an unwilling member of society. Whether punishment takes the form of a fine, incarceration, or (historically) the rack, the question arises: How is such a grave imposition upon someone morally justified?

The question of why civil authorities are entitled to punish is usually treated in law school as the “point” or “purpose” or “rationale” of punishment and not often as a question about its “moral justification”—a sign of the confusion that usually follows. The question is typically the first topic in criminal law class.

The laundry list of punishment’s purposes in criminal law casebooks includes deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. These purposes refer to, respectively, sanctioning a convicted criminal with a view to providing a disincentive to him or others to commit similar crimes, making the criminal well psychologically and socially, and isolating the criminal from law-abiding people. The problem is that none of these “rationales” provides an adequate moral justification for punishing anyone. Retribution does. But retribution is usually mangled in the teaching materials.
The Purposes of Law in Political Society

Understanding retribution depends upon a prior understanding of the purposes of law and the nature of cooperation in political society.

In the absence of any established political order, people would be free from authoritative constraint to do as they pleased. Their choices would not necessarily render society an uncontrollably selfish state of nature, as Thomas Hobbes anticipated.[9] Absent political order, some people would act reasonably—maybe even altruistically—and seek to cooperate with other people to achieve common benefits. (Call this the possibility of private ordering.)

But such a state of nature would, by definition, lack the means to structure the sort of cooperation that a large and heterogeneous society sometimes requires. Even custom could not provide this structure, at least for any large or complex society. States of nature lack altogether a common or effective authority by which to bring recalcitrants and free riders into line and by which to respond coercively to those who acted unfairly outside of the common pattern. Without some such central authority, the weaker members of society would be prey for the stronger, save where the former allied themselves into protective associations with the latter—in which case the excesses of vendettas and retaliatory raids might call forth a central authority: a proto-state.

Political society provides just such an authoritative scheme for structuring cooperation. Once this authority is up and running and providing direction (usually through law), justice requires individuals to accept the pattern of liberty and restraint specified by political authorities. Indeed, it is everyone’s acceptance of the established apparatus of political society for the purposes of cooperation for common good that makes civil liberty possible. One crucial meaning of equality and liberty within political society is precisely that everyone observes the pattern of freedom, restraint, and forbearance set up by these authorities.

Criminal acts often—but far from always (e.g., so-called victimless crimes)—involve injustice to one or more specific individuals, such as the battered spouse. What always occurs in crime is this: The criminal unjustifiably usurps liberty to pursue his own plans and projects in his own way, notwithstanding the law’s pattern of restraint. Thus far considered, the entire community remains within the law, each member denying to himself the liberty to do as he pleases except for the criminal. The criminal acts outside the pattern of common restraint and thus of mutual forbearance and cooperation.

The central wrong in crime, therefore, is not that a criminal causes harm to a specific individual. Rather, it is that the criminal claims the right to pursue his own interests and plans in a manner contrary to the common boundaries delineated by the law. From this perspective, the entire community—with the exception of the criminal—is victimized by crime. The criminal’s act of usurpation is unfair to everyone else; he has gained an undue advantage over those who remain inside the legally required pattern of restraint. In this view, punishing criminals is necessary to “avoid injustice, to maintain a rational order of proportionate equality, or fairness, as between all members of society.”[10]

Punishment restores the fundamental fairness and equality of mutual restraint disturbed by the criminal’s act. A criminal is punished in order to efface (as it were) his prior extravagance. By and through his punishment, society is restored to the status quo ante: The equality of mutual restraint within law is—morally speaking—re-established. The criminal’s debt to society is paid.

Again, depriving the criminal of this ill-gotten advantage is the central aim of punishment. Since that advantage consists primarily of a wrongful exercise of freedom of choice and action, the most appropriate means to restore order is to deprive the criminal of that freedom. Punishment sometimes includes sensory deprivation and even limited and transient pain, such as the pain of being shackled or of not being able to satisfy one’s hunger, and these will likely be experienced by the criminal as “suffering.”[11] The essence of punishment, however, is to restrict a criminal’s will by depriving him of the right to be the sole author of his own actions.[12]
Retribution: Moral Explanations and Justifications for Punishment

Arguing that retribution should be (at least) the primary driver of the moral justification of punishment is not like advocating that society dust off an impractical moralism, as if retribution were somehow a “justification in exile.” Retribution not only performs the invaluable service of justifying an essential but morally confounding social practice; it also provides morally adequate explanations for some anchor commitments within that social practice.

Take, for example, the ubiquitous styling of criminal prosecutions as a lawsuit to which the entire community is party, as in People v. Smith. Why are the “People” (or the “State” or the “Commonwealth”) the complaining party in every criminal case? Perhaps because retribution shows why and how by showing how society as a whole is victimized by every criminal act.

Retribution also underwrites the whole moralistic framework and language of criminal justice in a way that no other account of punishment can do. “Praise and blame,” “freedom and responsibility,” “guilt and innocence,” “crime and punishment”: This whole panoply of concepts and terms is part and parcel of America’s criminal justice experience, and it is supported well by retributive theory. So, too, is the act-specific and choice-specific focus of the criminal law.

From a retributive view, no one’s uncharitable attitudes, character defects, or personality disorders (all of which might trigger intervention in a rehabilitative or reformative regime of punishment) are fit grounds for punishment. The reason that they are not predicates for punishment owes to the fact that they are not acts of usurping liberty. The mere possession of these traits or beliefs is not, moreover, unfair to others.[13] Proponents of rehabilitation and paternalistic moral reformers, by contrast, are hardly able to explain why their particular ministrations must always await (by dint of moral imperative) the performance of some prohibited act.[14]

Another indication of how retribution explains and justifies punishment involves a perennial chestnut of first-year criminal law classes: What if a public authority could stave off riots and mayhem only by hanging an innocent person popularly believed to be guilty? The commonplace statement of moral priorities in society has long been “better that a hundred guilty persons go free than that one innocent suffer.”[15] Perhaps a hundred is hyperbole; Blackstone put the number at 10.[16] No matter, though, because both numbers express an important truth: A just society never wittingly convicts an innocent and stops at almost nothing to avoid negligently doing so.

Why? What are the moral underpinnings of this commitment, which is deeply embedded in this nation’s law and institutions?

Where retribution forms the moral justification for punishment, the problem of punishing the innocent can be solved. The aim of retribution is always frustrated—and is never served—by punishing the innocent. Punishing someone who has committed no offense is counterproductive. If someone has not distorted society’s equilibrium by committing a criminal act, harming him cannot restore that equilibrium, especially while the truly deserving party escapes retribution. Making an innocent disgorge his bold act of will is impossible, for there is nothing to be disgorged. Inflicting “punishment” on the innocent is instead simple scapegoating, which, even if it could somehow be morally justified, is surely not punishment at all.

Additionally, retribution promises cogent instruction on some controversial issues of the day. Retribution points straightaway, for example, in favor of determinate sentencing. The harm of any crime is cabined within a defined act performed on a particular occasion, and the measure of punishment required to redress it is tied tightly around that discrete act and its particular harm, both conceptually and morally.

Retribution also points, however, to a negative judgment on the broad movement in favor of “victims’ rights.” The specific victims of a criminal act deserve to be taken seriously and treated reasonably by all actors in the criminal justice system, from their first police encounter all the way through trial and sentencing. But it is dubious policy to make dispositive victims’ opinions about the disposition of what some call “their” cases and about appropriate penalties for offenders. Reconciling victims with their victimizers is not a bad idea, but in most cases, it may be quixotic, and in no case should it be the only goal of those public officials who are in charge of criminal justice matters.

Retribution and Overcriminalization

The foregoing slog through retribution and its virtues and alleged vices lays the foundation from which this paper may now take aim at overcriminalization. Below are five distinct criticisms of this phenomenon. Each is based upon moral principle. Each cuts deeply. The five are mutually reinforcing in very interesting ways, and the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts. Taken together, these five criticisms support the conclusion that the central case of overcriminalization—viz., a strict liability regulatory offense—is a case of unjust punishment, which is to say that it should not be done.

The following considerations do not address whether any one of the criticisms or some combination of them short of five supports the same conclusion. The effective force of these five criticisms upon secondary and peripheral cases of overcriminalization is also left aside, save to say that these criticisms have considerable extended force.

Criticism #1: Overcriminalization is driven by a desire to deter and is therefore unable to morally justify criminal sanctions.

As the Manhattan Institute’s Marie Gryphon writes:

[O]ften the overriding reason for enacting a piece of legislation is to produce an overall social benefit, and the criminal sanctions attached to certain forms of conduct…are chiefly aimed at conducing to that benefit by deterring that conduct rather than stigmatizing it and punishing the person who carried it out….[17]

Because it is impossible to fit the central case into the retributive framework—and because rehabilitation and moral reform are inapposite too—deterrence is left haplessly to shoulder the whole moral justificatory burden.

It is not altogether misleading to say that the goal of any criminal justice system is that certain conduct become rarer than it otherwise would be, and it is often said that retribution looks backward while deterrence looks forward and anticipates a beneficial societal result (more specifically, less crime). In this formulation of punishment theory, retribution is sometimes said to inflict socially useless suffering upon people and thus to be beyond the pale of worthy social policy. So far considered, it seems that deterrence and not retribution ought to be driving things.

The sole goal of deterrence is to reduce the future incidence of crime. Deterrence thinking is suffused with utilitarian theories of value, which tend toward social engineering in their social analyses. Retribution aims to restore a lost balance of fairness and equality for its own sake and not (as utilitarians would insist) because it is an overall state of affairs which includes proportionally more of goods or values or preferences than it does of corresponding negations, however these matters are determined.

The goal of retribution, though, is to re-establish the balance of fairness in political society. Both theories of punishment thus attempt to have a positive effect on society after the incidence of criminal activity, albeit in different ways. Retribution has the considerable further advantage of being capable of morally justifying criminal sanctions, which deterrence by itself lacks. And deterrent aims may be integrated (up to a point) with retributive moral underpinnings in a functioning criminal justice system, such as our own.[18]

Criticism #2: Overcriminalization disfigures the whole moralistic aspect of criminal law and its enforcement in two very different ways.

The first way arises from the fact that, for the foreseeable future, a criminal conviction will continue to stigmatize the offender as morally deficient: as the possessor of tainted, if not just plain bad, character. But someone convicted in our central case (like others whose punishment cannot be justified on retributive grounds) does not deserve this obloquy. Nor is he rightly made to suffer the many collateral consequences that come with a criminal conviction—being labeled as a criminal offender, being deprived of his right to vote, and many other legal and informal social disabilities and handicaps.

The second distortion stems from the first. Precisely because the central-case defendant is not a moral reprobate, the moral obloquy of criminal conviction is likely to be watered down by its improvident extension to him. This sullying effect is not limited to the precise regulatory offense at issue or to a class of similar offenses. The point is that the social identification of criminal conviction with moral fault will be watered down across the board.

The classic example is overtime parking, a trivial violation of the motor vehicle code that probably everyone who has ever driven has committed at some time. Because everyone has committed that offense, no one treats the matter as evidence of a character flaw. The result is that, for such infractions, society has severed the connection between a moral defect and a criminal offense. Because there are very good reasons to retain and preserve this connection and to preserve it as a common good, overcriminalization portends a potentially serious social loss.

Criticism #3: Overcriminalization creates a scenario in which the central-case defendant can be punished without performing the generic conduct—the liberty grab—that is the moral predicate of just punishment.

The third criticism hearkens back to the retributive understanding of the defining harm of criminal conduct, which is the malefactor’s unilateral grab of more liberty than he is due. This is the morally reprehensible preference for one’s own will over the prescribed legal course and at the expense of the common good, which is the heart of the retributive story.

The central-case offender, however, had no opportunity to choose to comply (or not) with the law. Or he might have chosen to (try to) comply but non-negligently failed to do so. In either event, he does not deserve to be punished, because he has not performed the generic conduct—the liberty grab—that is the moral predicate of just punishment. Because the paradigm individual never chose to commit a morally blameworthy act, society should not punish him with a device (the criminal justice system) that operates best, from a moral perspective, when its application is limited to parties who have grabbed for more gusto than their share allows.

This criticism is complicated by society’s nearly dogmatic systemic commitment to the proposition ignorantia legis neminem excusat—“ignorance of the law is no excuse.”[19] This maxim may be an impregnable—and largely sound—element of our criminal litigation system; at least, any alternative maxim could present problems of proof and might portend too much lawbreaking license. But overcriminalization is not a courtroom issue. It is a policy issue for legislators. In that arena, the anticipation that many people who could be prosecuted for the central-case offense will not have chosen selfishly to prefer their own will is a very good reason not to enact proposed strict liability criminal laws.

Criticism #4: Overcriminalization fails to encourage those who abide by the law.

The fourth criticism is a mirror image of the third. Fully understanding it depends upon a moral imperative as well as a practical exigency heretofore left implicit. The moral imperative is that punishment is necessary to avoid the injustice that would otherwise fester in the wake of any criminal’s unfair usurpation of liberty. This is society as victim. The practical matter is that punishment assures society that crime does not pay and that, by observing the law, the rest of society is not made into hapless losers. This is society as chump. Legal philosopher John Finnis explains this point more fully:

There is a need to give the law-abiding the encouragement of knowing that they are not being abandoned to the mercies of criminals, that the lawless are not being left to the peaceful enjoyment of ill-gotten gains, and that to comply with the law is not to be a mere sucker: for without this support and assurance the indispensable co-operation of the law-abiding is not likely to be continued.[20]

The central-case defendant—one who violates a strict liability regulatory offense—is punished without any evidence that he intended to violate the law, intended to engage in inherently wrongful conduct, or knew that his conduct was wrongful or prohibited by law. Nor is any evidence required that he violated a duty owed to another individual, to a group of individuals, or to society itself. Just as he can scarcely be accused of choosing to usurp liberty that society’s other members deny to themselves, they can scarcely be described as “suckers” for not doing likewise. Just as the central-case defendant had no real opportunity to choose to treat us unfairly, we have no real opportunity to choose to remain within the overall pattern of restraint marked out by law—or not to so choose.
Criticism #5: By eliminating the guilty-mind, or mens rea, requirement and by stipulating punishment for a morally innocuous act which the “wrongdoer” may never have chosen, the central case defies intelligent sentencing.

The fifth criticism turns to how retribution guides the competent lawmaker in creating a schedule of actual sentences. There are two very different faces to this picture, one well focused and the other blurry. Moral principles can tell the lawmaker that assault and theft, for example, should be treated as crimes and that those who commit these crimes should be punished, but moral principles—including those supplied by the retributive justification of punishment—do not by themselves tell the lawmaker which privations should be imposed for those crimes. Nor does moral principle tell the lawmaker how much of any specific privation—confinement, monetary fine, community service, civil disability—is just right.

There is, in other words, a very substantial range of free choice here for the lawmaker. This is the blurry part: The task at hand is guided, but underdetermined, by reason.

The clearer picture is this: A retribution-based understanding of punishment implies that any sentence be doubly proportional—first to the harm caused by the crime and second among the various crimes—so that the more egregious crimes are subject to proportionally greater sanction than lesser crimes. But how is one to distinguish large from small in this context?

No one thinks that the harm of a crime is mainly the tangible loss to a specific victim. If that were the case, then this nation would not have, for example, the many gradations of homicide that it does have, ranging from murder in the first degree all the way down to negligent homicide, then off the criminal chart entirely to actionable civil homicides, and then to cases in which one person causes the death of another without acting unlawfully at all. (The latter include genuine accidents and justified killings, such as those committed in self-defense.) Attempts to commit crimes—particularly the most reprehensible crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery—are generally punished at just a shade less than the punishment for consummated offenses. But if tangible, realized harm were the metric, then it would be hard to justify punishing attempts at all.

Clearly, the U.S. criminal justice system is predicated upon an understanding of crime as—in some very basic way—a matter of bad choices. By fleshing out those bad choices as unfair grabs of liberty, retribution helps supply a common measure of the harm done in every crime.

This is not to say that the more tangible damage done by a criminal’s bad choice does not matter at all. Someone who chooses intentionally to kill another human being has demonstrated an extraordinary preference for his own freedom of choice and has exercised it in gross disregard for the equal liberty and equal dignity of another person. This murderer’s usurpation is much greater and more heinous than that of the petty thief, and they should each be sentenced accordingly.

The final criticism, plainly stated, is that by eliminating the guilty-mind, or mens rea, requirement and by stipulating punishment for a morally innocuous act which the “wrongdoer” may never have chosen, our central case defies intelligent sentencing. The central case swings free of the proffered common metric and would seem destined to gauge an appropriate sanction either arbitrarily or by exclusive reference to the raw tangible damage wrought by the putatively criminal act.

[1]Strict liability criminal offenses allow the state to impose criminal punishment even if the “wrongdoer” did not intend to violate any law; did not intend to engage in inherently wrongful conduct (murder, rape, robbery, assault, theft, embezzlement, and the like); did not know that his conduct was wrongful or prohibited; and did not violate any duty of care he owed to the victim or to society as a whole. In other words, the “wrongdoer” need not have had any criminal intent or even be negligent in order to be subjected to criminal punishment under a strict liability offense.

[2]American law schools’ characteristic failures in criminal law instruction are not limited to the topic of retribution. Douglas Husak points out that that the “instructor’s manual to the most widely adopted casebook in criminal law recommends that the brief materials on ‘What to Punish?’ should be skipped in a one-semester course” and notes that criminal-law courses generally fail to cover the topic of overcriminalization. Douglas Husak, Overcriminalization: The Limits of the Criminal Law 61 (2008).

[3] See Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. Although found in and often thought to have originated with biblical scripture, the concept embodied in the lex talionis prescription (or proscription) also appears prominently in other ancient sources, such as the Code of Hammurabi.

[4] Cf. Moshe Greenberg, Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law, in Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume: Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion 13–20 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1960) (comparing the relatively restrained and limited punishments under the law of the biblical Israelites for property crimes with the relative severity of contemporaneous legal systems’ punishments for property crimes—and with the biblical law’s own punishments for murder and other crimes resulting in death).

[5]John Gardner, Offences and Defences: Selected Essays in the Philosophy of Criminal Law 213 (Oxford 2007).

[6]H.L.A. Hart, Prolegomenon to the Principles of Punishment, in Hart, Punishment and Responsibility 22 (5th ed. 1982).

[7] See Daniel Robinson, Praise and Blame 180–83 (Oxford 2002).

[8] See John Locke, Two Treatises on Government 27l–76 (Peter Laslett ed., Cambridge Univ. Press 1988) (1690).

[9]Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen 26–31 (Richard Tuck & Michael Silverthorne, eds., Cambridge University Press 1998) (1642).

[10]John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights 262 (Oxford 1980).

[11]Retribution has little (if anything) to do, however, with what Hart called the “intrinsic value” of inflicting suffering on wrongdoers. Suffering is necessarily a privation, a loss, a difficulty, a subtraction from the way things ought to be. Suffering so described is bad, and by definition, something bad does not have “intrinsic value.” If it did, it would be good. It seems likely that what Hart actually had in mind was the fact that we feel relieved to see the unjust “pay” for their crimes. Yet that view refers to suffering’s instrumental value, not its intrinsic significance.

[12]Hart understood well the concept of excess liberty upon which the retributive view of punishment depended. In discussing tort liability, for example, Hart refers explicitly to the artificial equality that a just system of law imposes upon the inequalities of nature by forbidding the strong and cunning from exploiting their natural advantages to cheat or harm weaker or guileless individuals. This legal equality is disrupted, Hart concluded, whenever a tortfeasor is “indulging his wish to injure [another person] or not sacrificing his ease to the duty of taking adequate precautions.” H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law 165 (2d ed. 1994). Legal remedies therefore attempt to restore the “moral status quo” in which victim and wrongdoer are, once again, on equal footing. Id. Yet Hart was confident a priori that retribution was solely a matter of inflicting suffering on a wrongdoer as a just return for his wickedness, a premise derived in part from his assumption that punishment was incontrovertibly defined as the infliction of pain. Perhaps it never occurred to Hart to extend his initial idea from tort to crime, even where he seemed very close to such a result. See generally H.L.A. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility, supra note 6.

[13] Cf. Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49, 67–68 (1973) (“The fantasies of a drug addict are his own and beyond the reach of government, but government regulation of drug sales is not prohibited by the Constitution.”).

[14]Rehabilitative goals may be accommodated within a system of punishment rooted in retributive commitments as well. They do not fit, however, as justifications of punishment but instead play out as incidents of human care for those who are imprisoned. One incident of any custodial sentence is the state’s assumption of a paternalistic role concerning the offender, a role which it would be wrong for the state to attempt apart from the morally justifiable custodial relationship. Prisoners cannot make many decisions for themselves. Their commercial options are those which the prison makes available to them. Their personal choices are limited by the exigencies of maintaining security in the prison. A prisoner with a drug habit may be obliged by the justice system to seek treatment, both for his own good and for the sake of those living with him in prison. A man guilty of criminal assault may be filled with abnormal rage and required to attend anger-management sessions in jail, or perhaps even in lieu of jail.

[15]This formulation of the maxim is attributed to Benjamin Franklin and was first used by the Supreme Court in 1895. Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 456. For a comprehensive treatment, see Alexander Volokh, Guilty Men, 146 U. Pa. L. Rev. 173 (1997).

[16]4 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England *358 (1765).

[17]Marie Gryphon, It’s a Crime? Flaws in Federal Statutes That Punish Standard Business Practice, Manhattan Inst. Civil Justice Report No. 12, at 12 (Nov. 2009).

[18]See Retribution and the Secondary Aims of Punishment, 44 Am. J. Juris. 105 (1999).

[19]For a critical discussion of that maxim, see Ronald A. Cass, Ignorance of the Law: A Maxim Reexamined, 17 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 671 (1976).

[20]Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, supra note 10, at 262.

Web of Inquisitional U.S. Law Creating Criminals

we the peopleFor decades, Washington D.C. has been adding to the number of federal laws and regulations that carry criminal penalties. Now the number is so high, no one is actually sure how many there are. Experts say practically anyone could be convicted of some sort of federal crime. And it’s all too easy for anyone to violate one of these laws and never know it. Congress has made it dangerous just to be alive in America, never mind whether you are guilty or not. Like federal child support laws, it’s all a matter of inquisition. Common law is dead.

The truth is that anyone can fall prey to overcriminalization. Civil rights have become secondary to the Rule of Law and I don’t mean Common Law. This law certainly isn’t your grandfathers law. [protected] Legal misadventures happened to racing legend Bobby Unser beginning in 1996. Unser went snowmobiling in the Rio Grande National Forest on the border of New Mexico and Colorado.

He and a friend got caught in a blizzard and were stranded for two days and two nights. They barely escaped with their lives. But that was only the beginning of his ordeal. “Bottom line: Don’t trust any government agency,” he warned. “Stand as clear from them as you can. Stay away from them because they’re not there for your good.”

Unser found himself in the middle of a fight with the U.S. Forest Service, facing a possible $5,000 fine and six months in jail for violating The Wilderness Act. The agency accused him of illegally snowmobiling on federally protected land known as “wilderness area.” The racing champ claimed that even if he was in the wilderness area, it was only when he was lost in the snowstorm. With money in the bank and the idea of principle, Unser decided to fight the charge in court.

“Well, I estimate that we probably spent around $300,000, maybe $350,000 would be my guess,” Unser said. As for the government, they spent millions of dollars in their efforts for prosecute Unser. “At the time we went to court, they’d already spent up somewhere around a million dollars. What – it’s the taxpayers money. They didn’t really care how much it cost,” he said.

In the end, he lost and paid a $75 fine. Now the three-time Indy 500 winner has another title to add to his record: He’s been convicted of a federal misdemeanor for getting lost in the wilderness.

Like many others, Unser blames Congress and the men that run it for the growing number of federal laws.

But it’s not just lawmakers who are at fault. Federal agencies not only enforce the laws, but write their own regulations which also carry criminal penalties. With government involved in everything from the environment to employment to health, anyone can easily get caught in the web of federal laws. The numbers prove it. Between 2000 and 2010, close to 800,000 people were sentenced for federal crimes.

Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican – Texas is among a few lawmakers on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm about the disturbing phenomenon, saying that Congress should re-think stiff penalties on simple accounting errors when filing taxes. In the past 20 or 30 years the number of people in jails and prisons in American has gone up almost tenfold because every time you turn around there are new laws.

One solution is for the House Judiciary Committee to oversee any new regulation that carries a criminal penalty, but this may be akin to having another fox to watch the hen house. The attitude behind the penalties is that Congress wants to appear to be tough on crime, including doubling up where state law is sufficient. It wastes money and doesn’t reduce crime. Orwell’s classic book “1984” states the case where fear is predominant and the violation of federal law is likely. There isn’t enough public awareness or outrage! Sadly, this is already because of fear.
[/protected]

Because You Never Know What Stupid Rule is Coming

by Simon Black

schoolhouse rockWhen I was a kid, I remember watching that Schoolhouse Rock cartoon about how a bill becomes a law. That single cartoon probably brainwashed three generations of children into believing in the checks and balances fantasy of the US federal government.

The reality is what we see everywhere today– self-regulating, self-legislating executive agencies with nearly unlimited scope and authority. Even the most mundane offices within the Fish and Wildlife Service can confiscate people’s private property without any judicial oversight.

These agencies can also conjure new rules out of thin air, all on their own, that have the same weight and effect as laws. In fact, Regulations.gov shows that there have been nearly 500 newly posted regulations or proposals just in the last week… and roughly 6,000 over the past 90-days. Truly mind-numbing.

One of these new proposals has come from our friendly neighborhood regulators at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).

As you’re probably aware, FinCEN is a bureau of the Treasury Department that overseas the ridiculous post-9/11 regulatory environment; there are oodles of regulations that have obliged bankers to nitpick every last detail of new customers’ lives when someone wants to open an account.

These requirements are called “KYC” or “Know Your Customer” rules… but in actuality, they have nothing to do with knowing your customer. Knowing your customer is sitting down and having a chat… talking about their families, their kids, their life experiences. The same sort of stuff you’d do if you were getting to know anyone in general.

KYC policies, on the other hand, are nothing more than burying customers under mountains of paperwork and forcing them to jump through ridiculous administrative hoops for the sake of “the folks upstairs in the compliance department.”

The net effect is that it’s more difficult to open any form of financial account, just about everywhere in the world. Naturally, they claim it’s all for the benefit of ‘fighting terrorism,’ but this is total nonsense.

Making bank customers submit to reams of paperwork ‘fights terrorism’ about as much as fondling little old ladies at the airport… or authorizing the military detention of US citizens on US soil.

Yet in a 37-page draft released only days ago, FinCEN spelled out new requirements that it intends to implement in order to ‘fight terrorism’. The agency attacked everything from financial intermediaries to nominee managers and shareholders, to the use of shelf companies.

FinCEN’s proposed changes would increase the burden, not only to financial institutions, but also to customers opening new accounts.

For example, FinCEN wants all new customers to explicitly forecast what the monthly inflows and outflows will be when opening an account. Any deviation from this forecast will require the banker to submit a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR).

Now, anyone who has ever started a business knows that forecasts are for finance wonks. It’s extraordinarily difficult for entrepreneurs (or investors, for that matter) to make accurate predictions, especially for startups. There’s simply too much uncertainty.

Needless to say, it’s unlikely that anyone at FinCEN making up these rules has ever run a business before. In their bubble reality, everyone should be able to accurately forecast bank balances, and anything to the contrary is ‘suspicious’.

The really crazy part about all of this is that FinCEN has the authority to implement these rules all on its own. There will be no Congressional Debate, no Presidential signature… simply a short waiting period until the final version is published in the Federal Register and becomes part of the Code.

Afterwards, they’ll push the same rules down the throats of every major banking jurisdiction around the world, making it much more onerous to open a bank account anywhere.

Opening a foreign bank account is perhaps the single most important first step in international diversification. It moves a portion of your savings abroad to a jurisdicition overseas that your thieving home government does not control. It can diversify your money out of a failing currency… and most importantly, the foreign bank might actually be solvent!

FinCEN is taking steps to make it much more difficult.

The sheer volume of so many new regulations, and the velocity with which they are spawned, should be a stark reminder that the time to take action is now. Tomorrow may bring yet another stupid rule that will make it more difficult, or impossible, to do what you’ve been putting off today.

Tag Cloud