Category: Poverty

Over the past decade media coverage of the problems surrounding indigent defense has been increasing. For example, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently suing the state of Utah for failing to uphold that 6th Amendment which now provides opportunities for government provided criminal defense. The ACLU is claiming that Utah fell short of its obligation to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire one. While the merits of the case have yet to be properly sorted out, what is true is that public defenders offices are under much needed scrutiny.

With the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision back in 2013 a flurry of articles were published that highlighted some of the injustices in the public defense system that the Gideon verdict created. The Gideon verdict required states to provide defense attorneys, especially for the poor.

In 2013, a New York Times article by Lincoln Caplan on the anniversary of the Gideon decision summarized several of current problems around the United States regarding public defense. The article highlighted the problems with meeting the requirements of Gideon at the state level where 95 percent of America’s criminal trials take place. The best programs in the United States still struggle to meet the high number of cases that require public defenders. Caplan’s article highlights the Miami public defender’s office which handles far above the American Bar Association’s recommendation of 150 cases per year for a attorney. The demand in Miami has reached 500 cases a year, and has far outpaced the funding for indigent defense. The important distinction the author makes in this article is that not only is financing of public defense an issue, but the general attitude towards the poor the system has created. It is an attitude that Caplan and others describe as “contempt.” (more…)

sintaxcan-300x189Philadelphia may like to think of itself as the “city of brotherly love,” but its latest tax increase is not so friendly to the poor.

Last week the city council passed a regressive soda tax proposal that will levy 1.5 cents per liquid ounce on distributors. According to Quartz, the tax will apply to regular and diet sodas, as well as other drinks with added sugar, such as Gatorade, lemonades, and iced teas.

This tax on sugary drinks is what is often called a “sin tax.” This is an excise tax that is specifically intended to target certain goods deemed harmful to society but that we don’t want (or can’t) ban completely, such as tobacco or alcohol. The idea is that by adding or increasing the tax, it increases the overall price of the good, thereby lowering consumer demand.

Sin taxes are a form of sumptuary law, a law that attempts to regulate permitted consumption of particular goods and services. Throughout history sumptuary laws have been used to reinforce social hierarchies or class-based discrimination. Normally this would be done by prohibiting certain social classes from being able to purchase a good, like the 16th-century French law that banned anyone but princes from wearing velvet. But modern sin taxes try to express the same types of social disapproval in more subtle ways.
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public+defenderSince the landmark Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) every state has developed a system of public defense. The decision guaranteed that those accused of felony offenses are entitled to a lawyer under the rights outlined in the 6th Amendment, which include, the right to a jury trial, a public trial, and pertaining to Gideon, “to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” In the wake of the Gideon decision each state was required to develop a system of public defenders to represent those who did not have a legal counsel, and especially those who could not afford a lawyer. Because of low funding for public defense, and the increasing number of cases filling courtrooms, more states are requiring defendants to pay a fee for their assigned defender—whether they are found guilty or not.

An April 2016 New York Times article Fordham University Law professor John Pfaff, highlights more weaknesses in the public defense world and in the odd funding mechanism. Forty-three states now require defendants to pay for a public defender, even though the only reason they have a public defender in the first place is because they cannot afford a lawyer. The Times article highlights the current policy in South Dakota where a defendant is required to pay $92 dollars an hour regardless of the verdict. The result of this policy is that the defendant might have to pay hundreds of dollars a day to be proven innocent for a crime for which he or she was mistakenly arrested.
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missions-globeChristians have routinely accepted a range of false dichotomies when it comes to so-called “full-time ministry,” confining such work to the vocation of pastor or evangelist or missionary.

The implications are clear: Those who enter or leave such vocations are thought to be “entering the work world” or “leaving the ministry,” whether it be for business or education or government. To the contrary, God has called all of us to minister to the lost across all vocations, and to do so “full-time.”

With the rise of the faith-work movement, the problems with this type of vocabulary have been helpfully exposed, and the underlying attitudes and imaginations are beginning to shift. What’s less discussed is how such a view can trickle into the world Christian missions and global aid.

This is most evident in the realm of “short-term missions,” which have become a core focus of ministry for many churches and school. I recently highlighted some helpful tips on avoiding a “messiah complex” in such scenarios, a temptation that the broader culture continues to peddle and promote at every turn. As we enter and experience new cultures and socio-economic realities, particularly in short-term and limited timeframes, we should remember to be learners and disciples, even as we preach and bear witness to the Gospel. (more…)

publicdefenderThe Atlantic published an article by Dylan Walsh about the growing fight in many states for the right to legal counsel. This article focuses on the state of Louisiana, and looks specifically the Concordia Parish along the Mississippi river. Like many poor, rural areas of the country the Concordia Parish suffers from drug problems and the local courts see a high volume of cases involving illegal substances. The district’s chief public defender’s office handles around 3,300 cases per year, three times what the state recommends. Therein lies the problem.

The spiraling problem in the arena of public defense is the growing number of cases and the parallel need for more lawyers and more funds to pay them. One example given in the Louisiana case claims that some lawyers were being paid $1,000 for 100 cases, or just $10 per case. With this level of income, public defenders in his parishes often need more than one job to cover costs and cannot live on their salary as a lawyer. In one parish, the office stopped representing some accused of certain misdemeanors because of financial needs and understaffing. Walsh quotes the Louisiana Public Defender Board (that oversees each district office) which predicts the “systemic failure in the public-defense system” this summer. The failure began months ago when New Orleans public defenders office announced it would begin refusing certain cases, even serious felonies involving murder and rape.
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Poverty-Inc-300x300The Poverty, Inc. documentary continues to make waves around the world, including the land down under.  Acton Institute Research Fellow and director of Poverty, Inc. Michael Matheson Miller was featured last week on Radio Adelaide in Adelaide, Austrailia in advance of a showing of the film there. You can listen to the interview via the audio player below.

Acton Institute Research Fellow and Director of Poverty, Inc. Michael Matheson Miller made an appearance on Fox Business Channel last week to discuss how his documentary addresses the issue of celebrity efforts at poverty alleviation, noting that often, such campaigns can do more harm than good. You can watch the interview below.