Thank you, Jack, and Bill Treanor, and congratulations to all of you being honored this evening. It is a special occasion.
I am so proud to be part of this Law Center and University. As much or more than any other law school in the country, we stand for and work for justice for people who are marginalized and excluded from full participation in our society.
Last week I was here in this room to celebrate the important work our University is doing to create second chances for people returning from prison. And you, Jack, led the discussion. It was powerful, and it was not just a program, it was a statement about the commitment of this University. It was important, and I was so glad to be part of it.
“Life of Learning.” For me it means making the world a better place. It means what we do with what we learn. For me “Life of Learning” means what the Jewish prayer says. “Tikkun Olam,” which means repair the world.
I think it began with my parents in a way that I didn’t understand until years later. They never said it out loud. Each of them took part in the community and made it better. My father, a lawyer in Minneapolis, took pro bono civil rights cases and was a key player in founding the Mt. Sinai Hospital for the Jewish community and its physicians. My mother who died much too young was a wonderful pianist who accompanied the mother singers in my elementary school. They loved doing those things and I was so proud of both of them. I realized much later that they had influenced me without saying a single word.
Another lesson. Justice Arthur Goldberg, for whom I clerked, taught me the difference between law and justice. As our Law Center says “Law is but the means, justice is the end.” I learned that from Justice Goldberg. He always asked what the justice issue was before he asked about the law. It didn’t get the point initially, but I finally got it. I didn’t exactly know what to do with it, but it stayed with me.
I learned something about what to do with it when I went to work for Robert Kennedy in the Senate. He knew and he was all about repairing the world. I learned a ton. Drinking from a fire hose. And because I was working for him I met my dear wife Marian.
I learned more from Robert Wood, my boss at the University of Massachusetts, who taught me an enormous amount about politics in universities, and more yet when Governor Hugh Carey made me Director of the Division of Youth in New York. It was the first time I was in charge and that was a total change.
My “Life of Learning” was moving along.
Then came my move to Georgetown, to a university. My life still meant bending arc toward justice, but the details were distributed differently. It is in my teaching, in my writing, and in action inside the Law Center and outside. It is the life of my learning since 1982.
Nothing means as much to me as my teaching, guiding young people who are headed for being public-interest lawyers, especially ones who want to pursue justice by reducing poverty in our country. The notes and visits from former students who tell me what they’re doing toward repairing the world, that’s the best of the best.
After my four grandchildren. And their parents, of course. I’m so glad that Marian and Josh and Heather and two of our wonderful grandchildren, Ellika and Zoe, are all here.
That brings us to what I want to address briefly today: three intertwined crises in our nation that are paramount in my life of learning.
One. I know a lot about poverty, but I didn’t know we had a national crisis of fines and fees and money bail. What opened my eyes happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Beyond the killing of Michael Brown, it was abusing its own citizens with unbelievably exorbitant fines and fees for minor crimes and sending them to jail when they could not pay.
In large part we woke up because of a searing report done by the U.S. Department of Justice. And what we found was a national epidemic of huge fines and fees, drivers’ license suspensions by the millions, gross abuse of money bail, and paying for room and board in jail and prisons. Its root was the anti-tax rebellion that began in the Reagan era, with “user fees” replacing tax financed services — in court systems as elsewhere and making the poor poorer, sometimes until they die.
That’s why I wrote a book about it.
Take Adel Edwards from Pelham, Georgia who has a significant intellectual disability and cannot read and write. He was fined $500 for burning leaves without a permit and another $528 for so-called probation run by a for-profit company. When Mr. Edwards could not come up with an instant payment of $250 he was sent to jail. And like so many, he is low-income and African-American. But unlike most, he was liberated. Lawyer Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights heard about the case and saved him, because what they had done was unconstitutional. If Sarah had not found him we would not know about him, and he would one of the thousands without a lawyer who would still be stuck.
What is this all about? Pure and simple, it’s the criminalization of poverty, a systemic way for states and communities to raise billions of dollars, especially from the poor. As Grover Norquist said, “Shrink the government until we can drown it in the bathtub.” So, starved for revenues, states and local governments turned to shaking people down. It’s 21st century debtors’ prisons and then some.
How does it work?
Like Adel Edwards. A conviction for a minor infraction. Sentenced for an outsized fine and a fee that has nothing to do with the offense. The person can’t pay.
The court sets up a payment plan. They put you on so-called probation and you have to pay to be on it. Bogus. 13 states for-profit. But 44 altogether, and 31 of them are public agencies. Even San Francisco was charging for probation until someone found out about it and got rid of it. For-profit all over the place – not just with prisons, but most of it in traditional public agencies. Probation, diversion, electronic ankle bracelets. Fees all over the place. 28 in Oklahoma, 20 in Florida. Pay for the courthouse library. Pay for everything.
It can run into thousands of dollars and go on forever. Interest mounts up, criminal contempt for not paying on time, new debt, on and on. Never an inquiry about ability to pay, which is unconstitutional.
Another version. Money bail. The person is arrested on a minor misdemeanor and put in jail, being held for trial unless they can come up with $500 or even more. They can’t, so they plead guilty when they’re not. It is another route to the payment plan that holds people forever.
But this misuse is just part of the terrible system that is money bail. There are 700,000 people in jail every day in the United States. 450,000 of them are people who are not guilty. They are there because they cannot pay for bail. A few need to be held, but the vast number should not be held. It is a catastrophe.
The biggest money comes from drivers’ license suspensions. This is the preferred way of squeezing money. 44 states do it. 7 million people have lost their licenses. It works. People have to drive to get to work or get the children to school. Another arrest, another crime, owing more money. Almost none are for driving dangerously. It’s mainly court debt. Nothing to do with driving at all. 4 million in California, 1.8 million in Texas, 1.2 in North Carolina, and almost a million in Virginia. It works beautifully. Big money.
Juvenile fees have become widespread, too. Pay for probation, supervision, diversion, drug testing, pay to stay, and more. Families are hit initially, but the debts go on into adulthood. It ruins credit for the children when they grow to adulthood. Collateral consequences can block employment, housing, and more. Why? Money.
The whole thing is truly modern peonage – a government-operated loan shark system. Also big business. 2 out of 3 of every current or former inmates owe unpaid fines and fees, including charging for room and board in jail and prison. It adds up to 10 million people owing $50 billion in court debt from fines and fees.
Mass incarceration came first – then the younger sibling, just as evil. Community policing turned into community fleecing. It calls up memories of the sharecropping economy that holds families in financial servitude, always ending the year owing more than they had earned from the crop, and shackled for another season. It was a vicious, unforgiving cycle. It still is.
What is different is that a growing force is fighting back. There is litigation and there is legislative advocacy. We see major change especially on money bail, but also movement on license suspensions and fines and fees as well. What we need now is much more public awareness and participation. Nearly every state has issues. Civic pressure could change this. It affects millions of people. They deserve better.
Two. Go into the courtrooms of any high-volume docket in any courthouse of any large city and you will see case after case where bewildered civil defendants without lawyers are trying to understand how to defend themselves from whatever is being thrown at them. You can see it just three blocks from the Law Center at our city’s Landlord Tenant Court. Ninety-five percent of the tenant defendants in that court have no lawyer while 90 percent of the landlord plaintiffs have one. It is a chaotic scene, although it was considerably worse not very long ago.
Whether the issue is eviction or debt collection or denial of public benefits, every day thousands of people are thrown into poverty or deeper poverty because they do not have the capacity to contest.
If I may be permitted to brag a bit, the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission which I chair has made a tangible difference on these issues. When we were created fifteen years ago 43 states were putting state money into legal services and the District was not one of them. The campaign that we led then is now producing $11 million annually, which is the largest per capita state appropriation in the country. We’ve also done campaigns to get more funding from the legal community and more pro bono lawyering. We’ve had some success but we must have more lawyers, both full-time and pro bono.
Of course the incidence of excessive legal problems among lower-income people is a result of their economic situation.
So three. I want to speak briefly about the most serious issue about American poverty, the poorest people in the country, and how they are suffering.
Deep poverty. Extreme poverty. The Census tells us that 18 million people now have incomes below half the poverty line, under $10,000 a year for a family of three. The percent living in extreme poverty has doubled in 40 years. We did it and we did it to women and children.
How? The 1996 welfare law did it. The percentage of children living in poor families and receiving cash assistance went from 68 percent before the 1996 law down to 23 percent now. In half the states, fewer than 20 percent of children living in poor families now receive cash assistance. Nationally, fewer than 3 million people now receive cash assistance, less than 1 percent of the population. 7 million people receiving food stamps have no other income. 7 million. We have largely destroyed the safety net for women and children. Worse, on our side we never talk about it and the other side says it is an enormous success. We should be ashamed.
That is the bottom of America’s inequality, and when we talk as we should about the people at the top, we need to pay more attention to those at the bottom too.
The full meaning of today’s inequality is truly terrifying. I worry for our democracy and for the political power that derives from the economic power of the people at the top. But as we know, we now have an opportunity beginning to appear. We must not waste it.
The coming election is crucial and it deserves our intense attention. At the same time, though, we need to work every day in our own communities toward better public policy at all levels, private and civic action, and personal responsibility in all ways. So much of what we can and must do is civic and local and in our own university. We must pursue Tikkun Olam, repair the world. Each of us.
I always close with a short quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. King’s dear friend, a deeply spiritual man, and an author of many books of great length. But here, a tweet before there was twitter, if you will. He said, “We are not all guilty but we are all responsible.”
Thank you so much for allowing me to share these thoughts on this occasion that means so much to me. This is my “life of learning.”