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Independent Study Slams New Orleans Judicial System

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By Mason Harrison
Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly

A sobering independent study commissioned by local officials that was released this month pans the New Orleans justice system as a disparate array of political fiefdoms that are charged with working together but often fail to do so in a manner that produces trackable results; is hobbled by outdated technology; and that has cost city taxpayers close to $300 million in a recent probe of the city’s crime-fighting budget.

The Philadelphia-based PFM Group produced the 69-page report that puts the functions of the many city agencies that constitute the local criminal justice system under a microscope, an apparatus the report’s authors call “highly fragmented” and a “criminal justice nonsystem” in reference to the agencies’ inability to coordinate functions.

The report calls for better use of the city’s scarce financial resources in fighting crime, improved use of criminal data, better coordination among city agencies and says City Hall “must lead” the other areas of the local criminal justice system in order to streamline their operations and achieve the other recommendations.

Funding for crime prevention measures also came under scrutiny in the study, with the report labeling the city’s method of allowing individual departments, like the sheriff’s office and others, to oversee their own budgets a “rare” feature among municipalities, with most creating a more centralized process for funding the justice system.

“Overall,” the report contends, “we want to have a community where both civil rights and civil order are maintained. Meeting these twin goals – civil rights and civil order – is made more complicated by the fragmented nature of the criminal justice system. … The fragmentation in authority is matched by a fragmented process of funding – including funds from the city, state and federal governments, as well as outside grants and a signification amount of funding derived through fees and fines collected from defendants.”

In 2010, the study estimates that the local criminal justice system functioned at a cost of $300 million, with hard-to-assess results because “data on the actual operation of the criminal justice system is scarce and often unreliable.”

“We sought data from multiple agencies across the criminal justice system,” the authors of the report note, adding, “Virtually every agency provided at least a partial response to our data requests. But, in many cases, different agencies responded by indicating that they did not have the data requested. Still, in other cases, there were instances where leaders of different agencies indicated that the data might be available but was likely unreliable.”

The unreliability of data is due, in part, the study contends, to the system’s outdated method for storing and transmitting information. “[T]he lack of data is due to gaps in technology. A fair amount of the operations of the criminal justice system remain based on hand-written summonses and notes. In many cases, data is largely used for individual case management – and it is either difficult or impossible to access that individual case data and use it for aggregate analysis.”

But what data is available is not often used: “With the exception of the Police Department, there is no sign that any of the other components of the criminal justice system regularly review data to measure or manage performance.”

Despite the report’s scathing assessment of the city’s crime-fighting apparatus, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office welcomed the information outlined in the study. Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the report contained “good information to have as we and our partners continue our historic efforts to reform and improve all aspects of the New Orleans Criminal Justice System. It will be particularly helpful to our administration and the City Council as we move through the budget process these next few months.”

The full report, entitled “Overview of the Criminal Justice System, its Costs and the Case for Better Coordination,” is available at www.nola.gov.

BET Co-Founder Slams Network for Negative Stereotypes

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Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, bad-mouthed the Black network at a recent event, saying it had become a “squandered” voice.

Speaking at the “Conversations and Encounters” program at the Carmel Art and Film Festival in Monterey County, Calif., Johnson said the new BET “reinforces negative stereotypes of young people, African Americans in particular,” according to EurWeb.com.

Now a strategic adviser to The Huffington Post, Johnson reflected on the “good old days” of the network she and her husband built, saying she was most proud of BET’s Teen Summit, which ran from 1989 to 2002.

But Johnson seemed unimpressed with the theme and direction of the network since it was sold and placed under new management.

“I think we squandered a really important cable network, when it really could have been the voice of Black America. We’re losing our voice as a race as a result,” she ranted. “I’m really worried about what our young people are watching. There are so many young people who are using the television as a babysitter. We have parents who are not being parents and not monitoring what their children are watching.”

2012 YWCA Racial Justice Summit: “Race, Citizenship, and American Politics"

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By A. David Dahmer
Special to the NNPA from The Madison Times

Melissa Harris-Perry, founding director of the Project on Gender, Race, and Politics, and professor of political science at Tulane University, has done extensive academic research inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges. She shared some of her knowledge with the Madison community as the keynote speaker at the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit Oct. 15 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.

Harris-Perry is a regular commentator on news programs, including those broadcast on MSNBC and “Bill Moyers Journal.” She also reaches thousands of readers as a columnist for “The Nation” magazine. Prior to her position at Tulane, Harris-Perry served on the faculties of Princeton University and The University of Chicago.

Each year, the YWCA Madison hosts a racial justice summit that brings together community stakeholders to work on eliminating barriers that foster racism in the community. The summit focuses on institutional racism and involves nationally known keynote speakers and researchers, as well as local experts and advocates.

This year’s summit featured numerous workshops and breakout sessions geared towards encouraging deep discussions on a variety of interesting topics including racial justice, diversity, prejudice, immigration, racial disparities, educational equity, and much more. The summit also featured a talk by Carlos Munoz, Jr., a prominent political scientist, historian, journalist, and public intellectual. He spoke in the morning on “Latin@s and the Politics of Race.”

Harris-Perry laughed and joked and took pictures with people at the summit before her keynote speech and signed her new book “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.” She opened her talk by chatting about some of the humorous things about her life, her friends, her children, and her work.

“I am incredibly enthusiastic to have a job where I get to talk about race and gender and justice on a regular basis,” she said. “I especially love it when progressives send me tweets and texts and e-mails about what I should go tell my bosses at GE [General Electric] or MSNBC or the evil corporate giant for which I work and I always feel like, ‘Do you tell your boss about his racism?’”

Harris-Perry’s extensive academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes. Her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. Her keynote talk on “Race, Citizenship, and American Politics” included a slide show with all kinds of photos from throughout U.S. history from her years of research.

“To live in a democracy is the right to govern and not simply to be governed,” she said. “All people have to be part of the process of governing. Everybody should have a stake that includes not simply being a subject. To be a citizen is to have a stake and not simply be a subject of the state. You have the right to rule and not just to be ruled and to be heard and not to be silenced.”

In short, she says, in a democracy you have to be able to lose an election without fearing that the winners take all. “This is insight from the great Lani Guinier who talks about being a loser in a winner-take-all system,” Harris-Perry says. “Winning an election is not the same thing as staging a coup [d'état]; just because you lose does not mean you have to shut up. Losing an election should be about a 50/50 experience if all things are fair and equal.”

She added that if you plan on being part of a coalition that always wins, you should prefer totalitarianism. “It’s more efficient and things get done more quickly,” she said, “and if you’re always going to win, you should want a system where you’re going to get it all. Democracy is for losers.”

Harris-Perry is the author of the widely celebrated book “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America,” which argues that persistent harmful stereotypes profoundly shape black women’s politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena.

“That moment was extraordinary four years ago when a black man was elected president, a Catholic was elected as his vice president, a woman had been on the Republican ticket and it was all reported on by an out, butch lesbian [Rachel Maddow],” Harris-Perry said. “That was a hot moment. That was a changing of our discourses and a changing of our fundamental difference in what we think is even possible in the world. And right behind it, we have a Latina on the Supreme Court.”

Harris-Perry added that we must ensure that there are not just changing faces at the top, but that there is penetration of that down through ordinary folks to the bottom.

“Our struggles are all interconnected — housing, employment, marriage, reproductive rights, incarceration, citizenship, education, voting — these are not black issues or Latino issues or gay issues,” Harris-Perry said. “These are the issues of our social contract. They are interconnected with each other. You can’t just pursue one at a time.”

Harris-Perry added that we have to recognize the interconnectedness of our struggles and that just being community-based is not sufficient. “You need to be community-based and tolerant … not tyrannical to those who are subordinate to you,” Harris-Perry said.

“Because capitulation to the powerful is always the norm. The challenge is the sustained localization of the marginal but democracy — that thing where everybody has a voice, that thing where everybody gets to rule, and the thing you can lose without the fear that the winners take all — requires communities with less power to check the tyranny or the majority. And it is not easy.”

Harris-Perry closed her speech by quoting the poet Audre Lorde:

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations. For more information about the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit, visit www.ywcamadison.org

Statue of Civil Rights Icon Fannie Lou Hamer Unveiled

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Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward Times

A life-sized bronze statue of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer is unveiled at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Gardens in Ruleville, Miss., Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Hamer, who died of cancer in 1977, drew national attention in 1964 when she and other members of the racially integrated Freedom Democratic Party challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Photo Credit/Chance Wright, The Bolivar Commercial.

She is remembered across the world as the woman who was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

On October 5, hundreds came from across the United States to remember Fannie Lou Hamer, a tireless civil rights advocate during her lifetime, at the unveiling of a statue built in her honor in her hometown of Ruleville, Miss.

“What was it James Brown sang? I feel good,” Hamer’s daughter, Vergie Hamer Faulkner, said on seeing her mother’s statue, according to the Clarion Ledger.

Hamer was born Fannie Lou Townsend on Oct. 6, 1917, to sharecroppers. She later worked as a sharecropper and timekeeper on a plantation in Sunflower County, Miss. She died March 14, 1977.

Many remember Hamer for her unstinting passion for civil and human rights, equality and justice. Her activism probably began in 1962 when she decided to go register to vote and was told she would have to leave the plantation where she had lived and worked for 18 years.

“I didn’t go register for you sir, I did it for myself,” Hamer challenged her boss W. D. Marlowe, according to the statue committee’s website.

From then on she dedicated herself to registering Black voters and other social causes, and suffered imprisonment, beatings and assassination attempts. But she persevered.

Hamer helped organize the racially diverse Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of an all-White Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Her defining speech before the assembly was so eloquent and so fiery that President Lyndon Johnson called a press conference to try and divert attention away from her. But national networks later ran her speech in its entirety and a national audience sat spellbound by her conviction and her truths.

Speaking of her beating at the hands of highway patrolmen in Winona she asked, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

Such oratorical skill and fearlessness seemed to belie her beginnings.

“Fannie Lou Hamer went from being a sharecropper, born and raised in one of the most racist and bigoted areas in our country, to becoming a strong, black female who was so articulate and such an incredible motivator,” said Reena Evers-Everette, the daughter of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, as quoted by TheGrio.com. “She changed the course of history especially in the field of politics and the Democratic Party.”

Student Loan Problems Mirror those of Mortgages

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By Charlene Crowell, NNPA Columnist

An adage counsels, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” When it comes to consumer debt, that advice is also a truism. After years of mortgage borrowers complaining about servicing – or the lack thereof – it appears that problems student loan borrowers face are remarkably similar.

With student loan debt topping the trillion-dollar mark, another looming credit crisis could emerge just as the housing market is showing signs of recovery. According to the Survey of Consumer Finance, today one in four American households are headed by someone under the age of 35 with student loan debt. Private student loans account for more than $150 billion of outstanding debt. Moreover, more than 850,000 of these loans are in default and even more are delinquent.

Like the many troubled homeowners who did not understand the terms of their mortgages, student loan borrowers are now having the same difficulty. Servicers, often hired by lenders, often do not share or know the terms of repayment, available options for refinance, or even the total amount owed.

Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report on the nearly 2,900 private student loan complaints it received since March of this year. Approximately 65 percent of complaints allege problems with servicers regarding fees, billing, fraud and credit reporting. Another 30 percent of borrowers filing complaints with CFPB were concerned with limited repayment options, debt collection practices and problems related to loans in default.

“Student loan borrower stories of detours and dead-ends with their servicers bear an uncanny resemblance to problematic practices uncovered in the mortgage servicing business,” said Rohit Chopra, CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman.

The vast majority of the student loan complaints received by CFPB were about private loans.

Unfortunately, private loans typically do not have the consumer protections built into federal student loans, such as lower interest and fixed rates, income-based repayment plans, military deferments or discharges upon death.

Instead, the typical private student loan servicer actually works for the lender and may not have an incentive to provide a high level of customer service to borrowers. In the face of financial hardship, unemployment or underemployment, these student loan borrowers often discover few or no options that can be adapted for their circumstances. In some cases, servicers encouraged borrowers to pay whatever they could, but failed to inform them their loan status would still be on a path towards default.

With fewer options for refinance or forbearance, some private student loan borrowers are also claiming they were never advised of the difference between a federal and private loan either at the time the loan was first originated or later during repayment. If the original loan was sold or if the servicer changed, many servicers were unable to answer basic questions as to who actually owns the unpaid loan. Depending upon loan terms, it may not be possible to negotiate alternative repayment.

Other complaints filed with CFPB expressed concerns with servicer errors or misinformation. For example, some servicers may take two to four days to process payments – even if the payment was submitted online. As a result, borrowers end up paying interest on a higher outstanding principal in the process. Others complained about faulty record-keeping, lost paperwork and errors that though promised to be quickly corrected were not. Still more complaints charged that even after getting transferred to multiple departments, no one was responsive or empowered to provide a clear answer.

If there is a moral to these unfortunate consumer experiences, it could be summed up with CFPB’s slogan, “Know Before You Owe.” Before any debt is incurred, take the time and necessary persistence to fully learn obligations and responsibilities. Any business or its representative that is unwilling or reluctant to explain their products are probably not a good choice for the consumer.

For consumers now considering a private student loan, invest some time to identify and pursue other forms of financial aid such as grants, scholarships, federal student loans, or work-study programs. Need-based grants often offered by state and federal initiatives can help defray college costs without incurring debt. Other programs are available to promote the growth of minorities in specific career paths.

“Know Before You Owe” is good advice. Knowing more about financing a college education is even better.

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

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