More Gubmint on the Cheap

August 12, 2007 by susan
Bush with flying money

I wrote the following piece for the WATCH newsletter several weeks ago, after hearing from prosecutors, public defenders and others that the criminal justice system was being squeezed dry by budget cuts at the state level. The newsletter came out on August 1, the day the bridge collapsed. Yes, I think there’s a theme here.

Americans remain a mystifying lot. Latest polls show that even though 52% of respondents worry about the bridges they cross, nearly 66% don't want to pay higher taxes to repair them. And President Chimpy has ruled out any hike to the gas tax, suggesting Congress take a look at how it's spending the money it has already got. (I think that's how he put it.)
Please read more.

He has a point. As a rule, those in Congress prefer building sexy new bridges-to-nowhere to replacing rusting rivets on the bridges to somewhere.

But when it comes to looking at how money is being spent, Chimpy is a fine one to talk. Hope he took along some GAO reports about the lost billions in Iraq for beach reading up at Poppy's place. (And those are just the unaccounted-for dollars. I'd argue that every dollar spent in Chimpy's tragic misadventure is a lost dollar.)

What follows is just a glimpse at some of what Gov. Pawlenty-of-nothing's no-tax pledge has meant for folks trying to administer justice in Hennepin County. Because WATCH is a non-profit 501c3 organization, ergo non-political, I'm a bit more measured in this piece than usual.

Published in the WATCH Post Newsletter, Summer, 2007.

by Susan Lenfestey

When Dru Sjodin was murdered in November, 2003, there was an understandable hue and cry from the public.

How could it be that her now-convicted killer, Alfonzo Rodriguez Jr., a recently released Level Three sex offender—the category deemed most likely to re-offend, and as such, a candidate for a form of indefinite treatment and detention known as civil commitment—was out on the streets unsupervised?

Well, like everything, it’s complicated, but perhaps government-on-the-cheap played a part.

When Governor Pawlenty took office in January, 2003, the state was facing a $4.5 billion deficit, and with his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, cuts were being made to all departments across the board, including Corrections.

In May, 2003 Dr. Anita Schlank, head of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, resigned after being told by a supervisor that the program was growing at an “unsustainable rate” and being directed to draw up a list of 40 civilly committed sex offenders to place in community housing in order to save money. (This testimony became a political hot potato, denied by some, confirmed by several of Schlank’s co-workers.)

According to Dr. Schlank, the order to pare down the program was in place before Pawlenty was elected, so I am not laying the release of Rodgriguez at Gov. Pawlenty’s feet. But I am saying that if Rodriguez was released to save money, the savings came at a terrible cost.

Since Sjodin's murder there’s been plenty of tough talk and new legislation. Local lawmakers have changed civil commitment procedures and extended sentences for sexual predators, and nationally, Dru’s Law, which creates a national sex offender public database, was enacted in 2005.

However, talk about public safety is as plentiful in politics as photo-ops, but paying for it is another matter. Although the 2007 legislative session restored some of the funding that was cut in the 2003 budget, the squeeze from the state house is still being felt at the courthouse. And Governor Pawlenty’s controversial slashing of Local Government Aid (LGA)—which provides state funds for cities, including the City of Minneapolis—is being felt acutely at the Minneapolis Police Department and City Attorney’s office.

Delving into the effects of budget cuts tapped into much more material than this short article can cover, but what we learned is sobering.

In talking to people in the criminal justice system, at both the county and the city level, it becomes clear that they are stretched to the max. The city police force and attorney’s office have been particularly hard-hit by the cuts to LGA.

The following examples illuminate, but by no means encompass, the fallout.

The sex crimes unit of the Minneapolis Police Department has been reduced from 10 officers to four, who are responsible for investigating an average of 1,300 cases a year, and that doesn’t include oversight of the 2,500 registered sex offenders living in Minneapolis. Do the math, says an officer we spoke with, “we’re not checking on them.” The math also means that many cases aren’t being assigned an investigator—and no investigation means no charges can be brought.

A county prosecutor expressed outrage over the low number of filings of child abuse cases in Minneapolis due to budget cuts in the police department’s Family Violence and Sex Crimes Units, which she says makes it impossible for them to keep up with investigating child abuse cases.

Public defenders also find these cuts detrimental. One told WATCH, “Yes, the system needs more resources across the board but your emphasis must be on domestic abuse, in my opinion, as these cases often involve real victims who are in real pain and their government is doing NOTHING for them.”

In 2006 the city attorney’s office handled a total of 27,195 cases. (The city attorney’s office handles misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Higher level crimes are referred to the county.) There are 28.5 attorneys in the office, so that’s an average of 951 cases per attorney per year. Both the American Bar Association and the Minnesota State Public Defender recommend an annual average of 400 misdemeanor cases per attorney per year, or 250 gross misdemeanor cases per attorney per year, so our city attorneys are carrying over double the recommended amount. “The LGA cuts came in on top of other cuts,” says one city attorney. “We’ve always done more with less, but now we simply can’t do any more.”

After a high-profile tragedy like the murder of Dru Sjodin, the tax-paying public clamors for the criminal justice system to do a better job, but balks when presented with the bill.

Obviously, throwing money at the complicated problem of sex crimes, especially at the corrections end and not the prevention end, is no panacea.

But giving the criminal justice system a shrinking budget, and expecting it to effectively administer justice in these complex cases, is, well, criminal.

It takes little courage for political leaders to lower the bar on sex offenders, but it takes extraordinary courage to raise the bar on taxpayers.
Well, as we're slowly learning, you get what you pay for.

Posted in

Comments

perhansa (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 8:55am

Great piece Susan.

Well supported evidence to combat the frequent soundbite from the Right: "We don't need to raise revenues (i.e., taxes)we need to be more efficient with what we have, cut out the waste, and examine our priorities." Well, just what are "our" priorities? The voting public is poorly informed, and again, misled by simplistic catch alls like "education", "transportation" and "homeland security."

This was a truly helpful post...

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MLS (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 10:45am

"simplistic" - that is the key word. Politicians want to handle key issues in the simplest way - please the public by cutting the taxes, or at least don't increase the taxes. Why not, say the politicians, as no new taxes always, always captures the public's attention. It sounds soo good, it's sooo simple and it gets the votes until the disaster(s) happen because the taxes have been cut and/or not raised. As you know, the 35W bridge is only one example.
Susan and Perhansa, you write the truth and the question is how do we get this truth out to the masses who don't read a newspaper but rely solely on television and don't seem to care until it's too late and the damage has been done. Our minds have been working over time in discussing these issues but how do we get through these barriers that government agencies/leaders control when we have leaders, i.e., GWB saying, "You know what's interesting about Washington? It's the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature." Good grief this man second guesses everything. No wonder ##??**!!
OK folks, now we know what to do. Simply simplify our minds and use our second sense!!

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MLS (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 10:51am

oops, I left out my final words of last sentence which should have read:
"Simply simplify our minds and use our second sense which
is nonsense!"

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perhansa (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 12:39pm

As Piglet would say, "Oh dear, oh dear. What's a small animal like me to do?"

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barbara aka babs (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 4:23pm

You know, you people just aren't seeing the big picture. What's called for here is the ability of every citizen to conceal and carry. Isn't that what the Constitution affords us, i.e., the right to bear arms? Implied is the right to shoot the brains out of predators in the absence of laws with teeth and a criminal justice system that is just.

Okay, okay, settle down. I'm being absurd. Which is what the whole conceal and carry, guns don't kill people, pry the damn thing out of my cold dead hands way of thinking seems to me.

But I would also pose this question. In the absence of laws with teeth and a criminal justice system that is just, what then? We have become a totally reactive society. Wait for the catastrophic event(s) and then try a stopgap measure that might (or might not) compensate for absurdly parsimonious budget decisions that put the people in peril.

What to do? Lean on your legislators, frequently and hard. Remember that stack of postcards you were going to buy? Buy 'em. Write on 'em. Send 'em. Show up at town hall meetings (for those of you lucky enough to have reps that come out of hiding from time to time). Ask questions. Demand answers.

Somewhere in the past few days, I read this thing that politicians should be trained to think and say and then act upon: "How shall WE spend OUR money?" They work for us. They do. And so does Mr. Big-Political-Ambitions in the governor's office.

Dru Sjodin. Dammit.

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susan | August 13, 2007 - 9:50pm

Thanks MLS and Perhansa. I got an email from the police chief in Minnetrista thanking me for that WATCH piece, which isn't my usual fan base. So somewhere out there, there is common ground. Isn't there? When I get hate mail I try to respond in a soothing way, like ice packs on poison ivy. (With the same negilgible effect.) And Perhansa's riff on how it is for most people --not the newspaper readers or blog readers, but the average working folks who are just trying to raise good kids and get by -- hit a chord with me.
I remember when Clinton was just another Democratic contender, a pork chop from Arkansas, and somewhere along the way he played his sax on Letterman, or Leno, and he took off. Seems to me, sadly, this is the way to reach most Americans who hate "politics" and see government as the enemy. Show up on schlock TV.
Right after Paul Wellstone died I had a dental appointment. The hygienist proudly showed me a photo of her teenaged daughter in full ice hockey regalia. Earlier I'd been mumbling through her poking and flossing about what the loss of Paul meant. "Politics just doesn't affect me," she'd said.
So when she showed me the daughter, about to go off to college on a full ice-hockey scholarship, I told her about Title IX. How the men didn't one day just decide to give her daughter ice time. How that was politics affecting her. And she got it. (Although this year, when I told her I was supporting Barack Obama, she said, "What? His Muslim past doesn't bother you?" Fox news at work.)

So yes, how do we reach these people? This is just the sort of woman Perhansa described, working hard at her job, doing her best to raise her kids, and taking only the most superficial glance at the machinations of the political world. So when Bushco warns of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, heading our way, she buys it.

As for Karl Rove, I have no idea what his departure -- or the timing or it -- is really about, but I smell a rat. And how did I miss the fact that he has a wife and son? Wasn't he always portrayed as a life-long bachelor, with dubious sexual orientation? And even if his personal life was off limits all these years, saying now that it's time to head home and be a father, just as the son departs for college, has rat feces all over it. Actually, maybe he really is a genius. "Hello son, nice to meet you. I'm your dad. Good luck in college." Parenting in a bottle, like one of those sponge critters you drop in a glass of water and watch as it expands. Karl Rove expanding. Scary.

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perhansa (not verified) | August 14, 2007 - 10:32am

I'm not sure how to reach the majority of folks like I described---drawing on my own family for inspiration. Not only do they believe the soundbite lies, they can't count on the MSM to call out the lies, distrotions, and half-truths. I wanted to vomit this morning reading Roves' description of Bush: "a man of far-sighted courage"..."reformer who challenged his administration"...a leader whose "integrity, character and decency have remained unchanged and inspiring". There goes my breakfast. People will hear those flagrant words of deception and delusion and it will stick in their minds that, hey, this guy can't be all bad if his freinds describe him thusly.

I think you're making the link to Title IX was great, people need to see how politics affects them in numerous unseen ways everyday. I firmly believe people won't care unless they see the connection and find a motivation to care. Maslow's pyramid of needs...gotta find the "screaming need" with the most strength.

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barbara aka babs (not verified) | August 14, 2007 - 11:18am

Perhansa, I have the same challenge, i.e., what I view to be a politically challenged family. My adult kids are bright. They were raised in a Republican household (yes, Virginia, Barbara was One of Them, at least nominally). But we belonged and were very active in a church that embraced and lived social justice, ergo un-Republicanism. That was roughly 30 years ago, and marks the beginning of my slowly-evolving epiphany about the rightness of the left.

Now I am a kind of island in my family. We don't talk politics. Too volatile. Don't talk global warming. They've read what Michael Crichton has to say. Most of our relatives are conservative. And I have discovered over the years how deeply theocon are some of my old school chums.

Sometimes I wonder by what right I pontificate at the Clothesline when I seem incapable of achieving breakthrough with my own clan. Well, not entirely true. I have high hopes for some of my grands. And you may rest assured that their trending left has brought down the wrath of kinder on my graying head.

Blah, blah, blah.

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B (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 10:55am

Lest we forget that we "doubled" the president's salary only to receive less than half of a leader.

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barbara aka babs (not verified) | August 13, 2007 - 11:26am

New math, B.

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