Donald Carcieri Walks off With the Keys Again

It’s ten o’ clock, do we know where our Governor is? Today’s ProJo says that he took off for somewhere with the keys in his pocket…

He was out of state all week and isn’t expected back until early this week, according to his spokesman, Jeff Neal.

“Governor Carcieri used the opportunity provided by the legislature’s spring vacation week to take time off.”, Neal told Political Scene. “He visited family in Ohio and spent time with family in Florida.”

The governor’s chief of staff, Brian Stern, was also on vacation last week. Neal wouldn’t detail where Stern had gone, saying only that Stern ‘also used the legislative break to take time off with his family out of state.’

Stern directed state government’s reaction to the now-infamous Dec. 13 snowstorm when Carcieri was in the Middle East.

So, with the governor and his right-hand man out of state last week, who was running the state?

“Governor Carcieri is leading state government”, Neal told Political Scene. “Governor Carcieri has been in touch with this office every working day while he was outside Rhode Island. He has been consulted on every decision that required his input or guidance. Throughout this period, we had the ability to contact him at any time of the day or night.”

Okay. Did he bother to tell the Lt. Governor this time? You remember what happened last winter…

Governor Carcieri was in the Middle East during the Dec. 13 storm and was out of contact with his administration until after the storm. Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, a Democrat, said she tried to act and provide leadership, but was rebuffed by Republican Carceri’s administration.

But the Governor had a way to fix it that didn’t involve giving the keys to a mere woman, and a Democrat besides…

After the Dec. 13 snowstorm and the heated public criticism that followed about the lack of leadership during the storm, Carcieri said that Maj. Gen. Robert T. Bray, who is head of the Guard and acting executive director of the state Emergency Management Agency, would be in charge if another weather emergency happened and the governor could not be contacted.

Carcieri’s decision came in a Jan. 11 e-mail responding to Journal questions about leadership in similar future emergencies. “In the future, the Adjutant General of the Rhode Island National Guard will be in charge whenever the Governor is not personally in state,” spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in the e-mail. “In the Governor’s absence, the Adjutant General will be responsible not only for overseeing the state’s on the ground preparations and response for potential weather emergencies, but also for acting as the public face and voice for the state’s effort.”

Since the e-mail, Carcieri has not elaborated on what Bray’s powers would include. The governor did not respond to several phone calls and e-mails sent through Neal.

But constitutional experts say Carcieri’s decision to put a military officer in charge, instead of an elected official, goes against the founding principles of the state and the nation.

Picky, picky, picky. So we don’t know what Adj. Gen. Bray’s powers include. And now he seems to have taken a lower profile. Maybe he’s on vacation like the Gov.

Rhode Island Adjutant Gen. Robert T. Bray, whom the governor has said is the public voice in emergencies, is no longer visible on the Rhode Island National Guard’s Web site.

Bray’s photo, welcome message and the entire ‘adjutant general’ link under the organization heading on the Guard’s home page have been removed. Visitors to the Web site wouldn’t know that Rhode Island ever had an adjutant general, except for a year-old news release about Army National Guardsmen receiving the bronze star.

Is the Guard commander’s departure from the Web site a sign of changes to come? Reached on his cell phone at an Air Force senior leadership conference this week, Bray said tersely: “I have no intentions of leaving.”

So, why aren’t you on the Web site anymore? “I’m not leaving.” Bray said. He declined to comment further.

And those annoying reporters should be ashamed for even asking. So who’s really in charge in case something needs to be decided? The Gov. says he has his red cell phone on him even when he’s swimming. You can’t expect him to be accountable the way ordinary working stiffs like us have to be. Considering the last few months, maybe it’s just as well if he stays away. He seems bored with the whole deal anyway. He’s made lots of friends in the most reactionary wing of the Republican party, and he’s probably taking time to set up his next move.

Geoff Schoos: Smart Ways to Reform RI Corrections

Geoff Schoos has an interesting column in this week’s Cranston Herald about what the state could do to save money on incarceration and bring non-violent ex-offenders back into the economy. I’m reprinting the column here for educational purposes, and because for some reason his column is having formatting problems on the Herald’s website and is cutting off the text on the edges of the page. From the Herald:

We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach. –Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (1928)

Society often presents us with a never-ending stream of paradoxes. Some are big and obvious. For example, it is paradoxical that the United States supports the spread of democracy throughout the world, while propping up totalitarian governments “vital� to our national security. It is paradoxical that our government promotes the strict adherence to the rule of law, while bending and stretching that rule in order to win the “War on Terror.� It is definitely paradoxical for government at all levels to speak about shared civic responsibilities, while enacting policies and programs that favor the few at the expense of the many. These are big, almost transcendent paradoxes.

There are other less obvious paradoxes in our country and state. One is how we treat people who were incarcerated or otherwise under a court’s supervision and who re-enter our community. According to a report of the Re-Entry Policy Council, which was created by the Council of State Governments, nationally many of these ex-offenders committed non-violent crimes and suffered from some form of substance abuse.

The situation is similar in Rhode Island. According to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC), in its 2007 Annual Commit and Release Report, 4,181 people were either released upon completion of their sentences or paroled. Based on the DOC’s report, roughly one-half of those released were non-violent offenders. Many of these individuals were sentenced to six months or less. According to friends in the recovery community, nearly 70 percent of those incarcerated suffer from drug abuse problems.

The RIDOC also reports that in calendar year 2007, 4,470 individuals were sentenced to prison. Of this number, 39 percent, or approximately 1,744 people, were sentenced as probation violators. It’s those 1,744 people that I’d like to focus on. Let’s assume that each one of these people is a non-violent offender who, for whatever reason, violated his/her parole. More often than not, the probation violation is the result of falling back into old habits, including drug use. Using the RIDOC’s per diem cost to house these people in minimum security (for purposes of this illustration, I assume all to be males as the cost per diem to house females at the women’s facility is higher) the cost to the state, if each is sentenced to six months, is $27 million. Compare that with the cost of supervising the same 1,744 people as community-based offenders. Those same offenders during those same six months would have cost the taxpayers $923,000. Neither cost includes the cost of administration and capital expenses. I’m no math whiz, but it seems that we’re spending a lot more money putting people in jail than we’d need to spend in keeping them out.

According to Director Wall of the RIDOC, in calendar year 2004 by the second year of their release, 46 percent of these ex-offenders were re-incarcerated for at least one year for other offenses. Permit me a couple of more assumptions. First, the recidivist rate remains at 46 percent two years after release. Second, each re-offender will be sent to medium security for at least one year. Third, we can apply that 46 percent recidivist rate to the 4,181 persons released in calendar year 2007 and we get 1,923 people sent back to prison. At the per annum cost of housing these inmates at the medium security facility here in Cranston (again minimizing the cost by excluding the cost of the women’s facility and administrative costs associated with incarceration), we get to spend an additional $67 million on the same guys that were released only 24 months earlier.

OK, I know that this analysis is (a little?) dense. However, I needed to do it to make two points. One is that our current system of re-entry is not working well, and two that we’re paying a lot of money for failure. Maybe if we spent some of this money on programs and policies that keep people out of prison, we wouldn’t have to spend so much to keep them in prison. And if we could keep these people out of prison, drug-free and gainfully employed, we’d all be better off.

In the quote that opened this column, Russell puts his finger on the moral paradox regarding this issue. We preach the morality of rehabilitation, but provide scant resources to that goal. The state could direct some of this money on re-incarceration to state and private drug treatment programs. The state could use some of this money to better fund job re-entry programs. The state could issue Certificates of Rehabilitation based on the New York State program on a case-by-case basis to aid ex-offenders in their search for jobs, applications for licenses and attainment of housing. The administration of this Certificate program would cost much less than re-incarcerating the same guys over and over again. The legislature could enact, at no cost to the taxpayer, Senate Bill 2189 that would mandate parity in insurance coverage for mental illness and substance abuse treatment. There are many things we could do that make better sense than what we’re doing now.

One additional thing that needs to be done in order to ease and complete an ex-offender’s successful re-entry into society is to revise the expungement statute. Recently, this has become a “hot button� issue with many Rhode Islanders. There are legitimate concerns about expunging an offender’s record. There are those who shouldn’t be eligible for expungement, such as sex offenders and those who commit homicide. However, if 46 percent of those released into society are going to be re-sentenced to prison after two years, that means that 54 percent do not re-offend and need a little help.

Let me introduce you to a client of mine. He got into some trouble for a five-year period during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The cause for most of his problems was alcohol. He was convicted of five misdemeanor offenses related to his alcohol abuse. However, for the past 15 years, he’s been clean and sober, gotten married to a wonderful woman and is the proud father of three. He went back to college and graduated with honors. For all his professional life he has been employed in the nonprofit sector working with families and kids. He has been praised for his efforts by his employers and even by Attorney General Lynch.

Because funding for nonprofit agencies is tenuous in good economic times, and these are decidedly not good times, my client sought to guard against any income disruption and thought that he’d like to obtain a chauffeur’s license to supplement his income. He submitted his application and was denied because of the incidents that occurred 15 years ago. To add insult to injury, he can’t get his record expunged because expungement is available only to “first-time� offenders. He is a multiple misdemeanant.

My client is no longer the guy he was 15 years ago. That is to his credit. Yet rather than recognizing the change in him, society still treats him as though he were still that person. That’s not just wrong. It’s stupid.

If we are to overcome Russell’s moral paradox, we need to match resources to our rhetoric. We want those re-entering society to succeed. It’s good for them and it’s good for us. Understand that in 2007, 4.9 percent of those released from prison came home to Cranston. This is one of those rare instances where it makes both moral and economic sense to extend a helping hand to those who need and truly want our help.

For our efforts, we get to do the right thing, live in safer communities, and save a few dollars to boot. What’s better than that?

City Council Meeting April 22 — More Education, Please!

It’s time to fight for the right to quality education for children in Cranston. School committee member Steve Stycos gives a good rallying summary for why it’s important for parents to come out for Tuesday’s meeting:

If passed by the Cranston City Council, Mayor Michael Napolitano’s budget will be a disaster for the schools. Supporters of education need to attend the council’s budget hearing on the schools, Tuesday April 22 at 6:30 pm in the Cranston East Auditorium. They also need to communicate with individual city council members. Just coming to the hearing will not be enough to convince the council to raise taxes to fund education.

The mayor’s April 1 budget presentation to the city council took five minutes. Only four of the nine council members (Santamaria, Barone, Garabedian and Lanni) attended. Five members of the school committee were present.

The mayor’s budget has three major problems.

1. The school committee requested an $8.5 million increase from the city. The mayor proposes a one million dollar increase. $8.5 million is a lot of money, but that is because the mayor and council only gave us an additional $900,000 last year and consequently we are running a $4 million deficit this year. The mayor proposed a four percent increase for the fire and police departments and less than one percent for the schools. If the council does not drastically increase the mayor’s proposal, I expect the EPIC program, middle school sports, JV and freshman sports and many other programs will be cut. Other programs, like the charter school and bussing, would also be subject to possible cuts. Under the city charter (section 6.04), the mayor is supposed to explain proposed cuts to the school department budget, but he said nothing in his speech.

2. The mayor proposes taking $2.7 million from the surplus or rainy day account to balance the budget.. This means that next year, the city will have to raise taxes by $2.7 million just to level fund all departments. A five percent tax increase, the maximum allowed by state law, would raise about $7 million dollars.

3. The mayor proposes no tax increase. Taxes need to be raised to fund the schools and eliminate the raid of the rainy day fund. We cannot run the schools with less than a one percent increase for the second year in a row. I see no other option, except raising taxes.

The school budget growth is dominated by pension and health insurance cost increases. Pension costs are determined entirely by the state legislature. They send us a bill and we have to pay. Health insurance costs cannot be altered with agreements from the employee unions. If the unions do not agree, under state law, things stay the same. After cutting $8 million from the superintendent’s proposed budget, we have few options.

Please attend the April 22 meeting at 6:30 PM at Cranston East and talk with your city council representative.

Elizabeth Roberts Won’t Stop Talking About Health Care

And why should she, really? The more I read, the more frightened I get. The news yesterday was that as the baby boomers are hitting 65, our already failing health care system is becoming totally swamped. So what’s a future-minded Lt. Governor to do? Why, hold a series a community meetings, of course!

Elizabeth Roberts is doing 16 meetings (holy cow, that’s a lot of meetings) across the state in order to get more people involved in the process of reforming health care in Rhode Island. Ours here in Cranston is next Monday, April 21st, at the Main branch of the library on Sockanosset Cross Road. All meetings will be held at 6:30 pm.

From the Lt. Governor’s office:

Roberts’ series of community meetings will be held as follows:

1. Thursday, April 3rd at Ada’s Creations: 1137 Broad Steet, Providence
2. Monday, April 14th at Phillips Street Hall: 51 North Phillips Street, East Providence
3. Wednesday, April 16th at the West Warwick Senior Center: 10 Factory Street West Warwick
4. Monday, April 21st at the Cranston Central Library: 140 Sockanosset Cross Road, Cranston
5. Monday, April 28th at Temple Beth El: 70 Orchard Street, Providence
6. Wednesday, April 30th at Thundermist Health Center: 450 Clinton Street, Woonsocket
7. Monday, May 5th at the Johnston Senior Center: 1291 Hartford Avenue, Johnston
8. Wednesday, May 7th at the Warren Senior Center: 12 Libby Lane, Warren
9. Monday, May 12th at the Pawtucket Public Library: 13 Summer Street, Pawtucket
10. Thursday, May 15th at the Warwick Public Library- Central Branch: 600 Sandy Lane, Warwick
11. Tuesday, May 20th at the Westerly Public Library: 44 Broad Street, Westerly
12. Thursday, May 22nd at the Smithfield Senior Center: 1 William J. Hawkins Trail, Greenville
13. Wednesday, May 28th at the South Kingstown Chamber of Commerce: 230 Old Tower Hill Road, Wakefield
14. Monday, June 2nd at the Wanskuck Boys and Girls Club: 550 Branch Avenue, Providence
15. Wednesday, June 4th at Newport Hospital: 11 Friendship Street, Newport
16. Thursday, June 5th at the Cumberland Town Hall- Council Chambers: 580 Broad Street, Cumberland

What’s There to be Bitter about?

Some pictures are worth a thousand words. And some words paint an astounding picture. Consider the following article from today’s New York Times:

Despite Tough Times, Ultrarich Keep Spending

Who said anything about a recession? Sometime between the government bailout of Bear Stearns and the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that America lost 80,000 jobs in March, Lee Tachman spent roughly $50,000 last month on a four-day jaunt to Miami for himself and three close friends.

The trip was an exercise in luxuriant male bonding. Mr. Tachman, who is 38, and his friends got around by private jet, helicopter, Hummer limousine, Ferraris and Lamborghinis; stayed in V.I.P. rooms at Casa Casuarina, [full text]

Now contrast the above with a slightly different story from last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Working poor struggle to get by

Twenty-five dollars. That’s all Sandra Walerski can spend in the Claymont Save-a-Lot today for a week’s worth of groceries.

Walerski, 47, who lives in Trainer, Delaware County, travels over the Pennsylvania line to shop in tax-free Delaware – part of a mighty fight to keep her family of six afloat as the hard-time economy grows wide and deep.

Food and gas prices soar while the dollar weakens and employers shed jobs. People like Walerski are among the worst casualties – a rising number of working poor in the region, generally defined as families with one or more workers making no more than twice the poverty level.

Being working poor is like living in another America, a lesser country where you go to a job, pay bills – do everything right – and still teeter perilously close to the edge.

“Working poor is what I am,” says Walerski, who possesses a broad, smiling face and a fighter’s demeanor. “There are lots of us, and we look like everyone else.

Some weeks, Walerski spends as much as $45. But overall, her precious dollars seem to buy less while her four kids are eating more.

Her carpenter husband works diligently to pay the mortgage on the family’s cramped house, down the street from a refinery. But there isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, a growing tumor in Walerski’s brain, as yet unbiopsied, prevents her from being employed. She used to put in 50 hours a week, juggling a day-care job with telephone-survey work. She prays that the cancer that resulted in surgery to remove her breasts does not return. [full text]

Get the picture?

Homeland Security in the Year 1692

Synchronicity? Yesterday I was driving up Rt.128 near Salem. Today’s New York Times has two stories about witchcraft on the editorial page.

From Hartford, Connecticut-

In 1662, the colonists of Hartford accused 39-year-old Mary Sanford of witchcraft. Based on evidence — drinking wine and dancing around a bonfire — the court pronounced her guilty “for not having the feare of God before thyne eyes.� Sanford was hanged, leaving behind five children and a shaken husband who was later acquitted of similar charges.

More than three centuries later, Sanford’s descendants, 14-year-old Addie Avery and her mother, Debra, of New Milford, Conn., have petitioned the State Legislature to exonerate their distant grandmother and 10 other people executed for witchcraft. The fight has taught them something, perhaps more than they wanted to know, about the mob mentality.

Mob mentality? Who could object to a symbolic gesture exonerating people who would never even be accused under any law on the books today? Leave it to the conservative blogs, like

This is the same sort of faux outrage we see from black Americans who want “apologies� or even reparations for slavery. It is foolish to imagine that an “apology� given 150 years after the end of a thing is in any way meaningful. No one is left on any side of the issue to either honestly offer or graciously accept such an apology. It happened. Deal with it.

If only such scapegoating were a thing of the distant past. Then we could conclude that we have nothing to learn from history and that our ancestors did nothing worth remembering. But today’s Times carries Nicholas D. Kristof’s warning that the societal stress of climate change is leading to a revival of the execution of women marked as witches.

In rural Tanzania, murders of elderly women accused of witchcraft are a very common form of homicide. And when Tanzania suffers unusual rainfall — either drought or flooding — witch-killings double, according to research by Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“In bad years, the killings explode,� Professor Miguel said. He believes that if climate change causes more drought years in Tanzania, the result will be more elderly women executed there and in other poor countries that still commonly attack supposed witches.

There is evidence that European witch-burnings in past centuries may also have resulted from climate variations and the resulting crop failures, economic distress and search for scapegoats. Emily Oster, a University of Chicago economist, tracked witchcraft trials and weather in Western Europe between 1520 and 1770 and found a close correlation: colder weather led to more crackdowns on witches.

Imagine living in fear of an enemy who is covert and ruthless. An enemy who hates us for all that we hold dear. An enemy who hides among us, using our freedoms and institutions against us. One who is so at war with all that we cherish that he is outside of our norms of fairness and decency. Our civilian legal tradition is helpless and impotent against such an enemy. We need special laws and prisons, special interrogation techniques. This was Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Sound familiar?

And the clergy, the good educated Christian ministers. Can we look to them to lead us back to the Gospel of forgiveness and love of neighbor? Not in Salem, where Rev. Cotton Mather whipped up a crowd to hang his fellow minister, George Burroughs, for witchcraft. The witchcraft panic made Cotton Mather’s career. He published several best-selling books and became famous. Ministers are still making names for themselves as fearless soldiers of the Lord.

[In Eket, Nigeria] preachers are turning their attentions to children – naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush…

Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people’s memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.

Nigeria is a country divided between Christians and Muslims, with religious strife, poverty and political unrest. There is fear and desperation in Nigeria, just as in Salem in 1692. These are conditions that provide opportunities for demagogic politicians and religious entrepreneurs.

Not that we have those kinds of things here. In America we’re rational. And we’re never bitter, we always look on the bright side of life.

But we were not always so enlightened. When Mary Sanford was hanged, witchcraft trials were sporadic and few people were directly affected. If the accused was not yourself or someone you loved, then you could just keep your head down and thank the Lord that someone was cracking down on the crime of witchcraft. And sigh with relief that no one was paying attention to you.

But that all changed thirty years later when Salem turned on its own. Allegations and rumors swept through the community. In response to the panic, the normal legal process was replaced by the Court of Oyer and Terminer — hear and determine, so as to dispose of cases quickly in the crisis. Within a year, twenty innocent people, mostly church members, had been executed. Over 150 were imprisoned. Rich and poor alike were swept into the nightmare of accusation and detention, and for a while most of the citizens knew they were at risk.

So at great cost, Salem learned that the right to a fair trial and a defense lawyer is not just a luxury for peacetime, and that hearsay and testimony obtained under torture is worthless.

I hope that Mary Sanford really did drink wine and dance in the woods. I hope she had a moment of freedom from the heavy hand of frightened religious fundamentalism. Blessed be, sister. We’d better not forget you because we’re not home yet.

Reader’s Digest Special Report on the FDA

I’m not a regular reader of Reader’s Digest, but this special report on the FDA provides a good examination of all the ways that the agency has become so compromised that they are barely doing the job they were set up to do. From the article:

Recent headlines have uncovered one shocking lapse after another at the Food and Drug Administration: A popular diabetes drug can sharply increase the risk of heart attack, a finding the agency knew but took two years to reveal. An FDA-approved antibiotic can destroy your liver in just five days. And despite mounting concerns about the safety of Chinese-made drugs, the agency had only enough field inspectors last year to check a mere 13 of the 714 Chinese factories that produce medicines for U.S. consumers.

Many of the nation’s leading doctors, scientists and lawmakers now agree that the FDA is in crisis. Lurching from one disaster to another, the 102-year-old agency learns of dangers too late and then moves too slowly to remedy them. Insiders say it’s woefully underfunded, dangerously understaffed and fractured by bitter internal tensions. Instead of depending on the FDA, Americans are doubting it — and for good reason.

The FDA is expected to regulate $1.5 trillion in food, drugs, vaccines, medical devices, blood and tissues, radiation-emitting machines, animal feeds and drugs, cell phones, dietary supplements, biotechnology and gene therapy — and, post-9/11, sniff out any food-borne terrorist plot. Yet the agency’s annual funding, $2 billion, is about what Fairfax County, Virginia, pays for its public schools.

“Think your pacemaker, heart valve, microwave oven or morning vitamin was inspected?” asks former associate commissioner William Hubbard. “Dream on.” [full text]

There is also a good related story about the drug Ketek, which somehow got through FDA approval even though it was so unsafe that it could ruin your liver in five days. The story provides frightening text from an FDA official’s email in which the official encouraged the drug makers to cover up the fact that many of the supposed participants in the clinical trials for the drug were fabricated.

The good news is that the public’s growing awareness of the problems with the FDA has finally led to some proactive change. But the changes are coming slowly and corporate influence still plays a major role in what drugs get to market and how fast. So for the time being, it’s every drug consumer for him/herself. Remember to use the tools available to you, particularly the internet and second opinions, in order to make informed decisions about medication use.