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Friday, February 26, 2010

Make Drug Court Funding A Priority


Every year the Utah legislature must decide how to divide the annual budget among many different programs. This task becomes even more difficult when there are budget shortfalls. This year's deficit provides a particularly difficult challenge.

Drug courts should be a funding priority for the legislature. Drug courts take a unique approach to the problem of substance abuse and seek not merely to punish behavior - but change it. Criminals who participate in these courts are sanctioned or rewarded over time based on their behavior. The courts make use of numerous social programs, including counselors, medical professionals, and job services. The result is that drug users who would otherwise continue to commit crimes develop the skills necessary to become productive members of the community. What began as a single court in Florida during the 1980's has become a global phenomenon because of its successes.

The economic and social impact of drug courts in Utah is impressive. Studies show that crime rates tend to increase during times of economic difficulty. There is therefore an extraordinary need to make drug court funding a priority this year.

Drug courts are one of the most financially viable social programs. Among criminal justice programs, there simply are none better. In Salt Lake County, every dollar invested in the drug court program yields a return of about $4.29. For times when every dollar counts, drug courts certainly live up to their reputation. By making drug court funding a priority, legislators show tremendous judgment when it comes to dollars and cents.

There are also impressive social benefits of the drug court program. Recent statistics show that drug courts reduce crime nationwide by an average of 10 - 14%. Locally, that number is just above 10%. Drug courts do much more than merely keep criminals off the streets for awhile. They attempt to keep them off the streets indefinitely. No other state program has proven as effective at reducing crime associated with drug abuse.

Some argue that drug users should not be rehabilitated, but merely imprisoned. This is evident in part by the fact that nearly 85% of prison inmates were convicted on crimes associated with substance abuse. However, statistics show that when drug users do no more than serve their time, they reoffend at astronomically high rates. At a time when prisoners in Utah are currently being released early due to budget shortages, drug courts become not just a valuable tool - but an indispensible one. Drug courts not only lessen the immediate impact on jails and prisons, but also make a significant dent in the number of prisoners who consistently reoffend. When used in a program such as drug courts, rehabilitation is a hands-down better alternative than incarceration alone.

The State of Utah legislature has many tough decisions to make this year. Although there is a temptation to cut numerous programs, drug courts should be viewed as a funding priority. No other criminal justice programs yield economic returns as impressive as those seen in drug courts. In addition to economic benefits, the social advantages of drug courts are impressive as well. Recidivism rates are significantly lowered due to drug courts. The strain on prisons is lessened. The streets become safer. Economically and socially, drug courts make sense.

By making funding for drug courts a priority, the legislature will show that they can make use of the current budget shortfall to get $4 worth of benefits for every $1 they invest. During times of serious economic difficulty, this ability would be a tremendous asset to Utah taxpayers.


* Published in the Deseret News, February 26, 2010, at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700012156/Drug-courts-should-be-a-funding-priority.html

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Depressing Alternative To A Depression


President Obama said today that we have successfully staved off an economic depression by passing the stimulus package. The $757 billion bitter pill is working. But at what cost?

What is a depression anyhow? No one really knows. It is surprisingly difficult to define. It is a prolonged recession. It has high rates of unemployment, reduced access to credit, growing numbers of bankruptcies. Banks fail. Stock markets crash. Basically, all the things that have happened over the last 2 years.

And yet experts somehow agree - what we have been experiencing is not a depression.

The Great Depression of the 1930's embodied unemployment rates that seem astronomical even now. Today, 1 in every 10 job-seekers cannot find work. In the dark ages of America's economic history, nearly 1 in every 4 people who wanted work could not find it. It took more than a decade to straighten things out. If it hadn't been for World War II, the depression may have lasted even longer.

As difficult as a depression is to define, Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics, takes a stab at a more abstract definition:

Depressions are signified by times of free lunches.

Free lunches? Not exactly a technical term, but it gets the idea across. During times when the economy is functioning properly, capitalism works. Supply and demand balance each other out. The markets trend upward, people keep their jobs, new jobs are created. There are tough times, but everyone is working and earning, and things eventually work out.

Krugman's depression economics are signified by times when we no longer have to earn our lunches. We create resources, we create money, we create lunches. The maxim of the weight room, "No pain, no gain" goes out the window. Why pay for your lunch when you can find it somewhere for free?

The latest recession embodies all that typically comes with a depression. In addition, we are also saddling generations to come with debt that we cannot pay for. Hardly a week goes by that some expert does not warn of the dollar failing, of China refusing to purchase more debt, of inflation rising beyond our control. Times are tough.

And yet, President Obama is probably right on the money (excuse the pun) when he says that things could be worse. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a situation where $787 billion would not temporarily help.

White House officials warned that if the stimulus package was not passed, unemployment rates would reach 8%. The bill passed, and unemployment climbed over 10%. And yet it could have been worse. Much worse. In this sense, the stimulus package was a success.

But at what cost? What will be the result of that which basically equates to printing money to pay the bills? How long will it take before the debt is paid off?

Was it worth it?

I have never lived through a depression. I am sure it would be awful. And yet, we refer to veterans of World War II as the "greatest generation." How was it that the greatest Americans came out of the direst of economic conditions? Would America have produced men of such great character if they were not made to work to get ahead, to pay the bills, to buy their own lunches - or go without?

For the moment, we seem to have avoided economic catastrophe. But our depressing alternative to a depression is one where we are collectively placing the role of individual responsibility upon the shoulders of the government. An economic depression would be awful. But a situation where we abandon the work ethic which made us great in favor of a temporary fix is alarming.

How good can a lunch taste if we always get it for free?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Writing On the Hand


When someone talks about the "writing on the wall," they are referring to a bad omen. A sign that the future does not look all that good. Its origins come from a story in the bible where supernatural writing appeared on the wall of a temple, signaling the downfall of an empire.

It may be that some recent political writings signal a potential problem for America as well.

On February 6, 2010, Sarah Palin was addressing a convention of the Tea Party. Word got around that she was interested in a nomination, assuring her place in the 2012 general election. But what really got everyone's attention was the writing on her hand.

Video of her speech revealed some ink scribbles on her hand. Independent gurus later revealed what was written:

"Energy"

"Budget (Cut?)"

"Tax"

"Lift American Spirits"

Essentially, a cheat sheet for her speech. For someone who had come across as less-than-intelligent at various times in the past, this incident didn't do much for Palin's credibility. What added fuel to the flames was a joke that she had made during the speech where she poked fun at President Obama's reliance on a teleprompter. The irony of the situation made it instant news.

But it didn't stop there.

Soon afterwards, White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, played his own card. At a White House briefing soon after Palin's address, he mockingly referred to notes on his hand where he had written down a partial grocery list, as well as two key words from Obama's presidential campaign:

"Hope"

"Change"

One or two of the press erupted in sincere laughter. The rest of the room responded as well, but more in disbelief of what had been done. It was a cheap shot - and it was aimed at someone that wasn't supposed to be a serious contender for the White House.

And so it went, one insult after another... after another.

I am all for debate in politics, and humor usually makes things more interesting. But do we really have to be so callous in our debates? For a country that requires most college graduates to take courses in civics, it is unfortunate that its leaders seem to have misplaced the virtue of civility.

If we do not change the tone of our public discourse, the "writing on the hand" may very well end up being the "writing on the wall" - foretelling our decline as a nation. If we want to remain as a leading force for good in the world, we must make use of those values which make us great within the walls of our own country.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Few Problems with Merit Pay for Teachers

The Utah legislature is currently considering a bill which would reward teachers with a pay commensurate with the test score results of their students. While the desire to reward educators based upon their performance is to be admired, there are several major problems with the proposed solution.

Merit pay addresses the issue of how teachers are paid. It seeks to reward them according to their "merits." Consider a company who pays their employees based upon a commission of sales. The employee who sells more of the company's product will earn a higher paycheck than the employee who is not as productive. They are paid according to merits. Accordingly, merit pay for teachers assumes that student test scores are the product. The higher the test scores, the higher the teacher pay.

The current system used to compensate teachers is threefold. First, teachers are paid based upon their academic degrees. Second, they are compensated based upon various certifications they obtain. Lastly, their paychecks are influenced by the number of years they have taught in the public school system. Under these guidelines, a teacher with a Master's Degree who has several certifications and has taught school for 30 years will receive more than the teacher who only has a Bachelor's Degree, has not yet earned any certifications, and is just entering the workforce.

There are several problems with the current system. At the forefront of the debate is the fact that teacher experience does not necessarily equate with teacher performance. In other words, a teacher may meet all the criteria for a high paycheck, and yet be an ineffective teacher. The proposal of instituting merit pay seeks to find a better way to reward performance, namely, by rewarding teachers who have students with high test scores. Although the effort to provide students with more effective teachers is noble, the solution of merit pay actually causes more problems than it solves.

Merit pay assumes that every teacher has an equal opportunity for success. However, the reality of the classroom is far different from an ideal controlled environment.

While college graduate students gain admission to various programs based in part upon testing scores, elementary school students do not typically take entrance examinations. The result is that a wide variety of students enter the K-12 classrooms.

To illustrate, consider the growing trend of non-English speaking students. Teachers are expected to elicit high test scores from pupils who do not share the same language as their instructors. Additionally, K-12 classrooms are comprised of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds - a factor that cannot be understated when it comes to impacting test scores. Moreover, students often bring numerous learning disorders to the classroom.

To reward teachers based upon merit pay assumes that teachers will have an equally distributed amount of students in the classroom from foreign countries, diverse economic backgrounds, and who possess varied learning disorders.

And yet this is not the reality. Many classrooms are full of students who only speak English, come from wealthy families, and are mentally healthy while other classrooms have few students who speak English, a majority who come from poor families, and many who suffer from serious learning disorders.

The proposal of merit pay for teachers by the Utah legislature is problematic. Although there are problems with the current system of compensation which is largely based upon experience, instituting merit pay would cause more problems than it would solve.

Rewarding teachers based solely upon performance is a noble idea, but until the associated problems can be appropriately resolved, merit pay should not be instituted.


* Published in the Salt Lake Tribune, February 13, 2010, at http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/ci_14390954.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Child Abuse: The Beginning of the End?


A recent study conducted by the government found that rates of child abuse have declined over 25% from 1993 to 2006. As a sociology graduate, I have always been fascinated by the reasons for statistical trends. Although the study in question focuses more on numbers than hypotheses, I thought a topic as important as this could use a brief examination.

Child abuse rears its ugly head in many forms. In particular, child abuse is manifest in three main categories: physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The disturbing crime is prevalent in our society. In 1993, approximately 743,200 victims reported incidents of abuse. Over the course of 13 years, that number dropped to an estimated 553,000 victims. A major flaw in a study of this kind is that the researchers have to assume that all cases of child abuse are reported. Of course, this is not the case and the total number of victims is certainly higher. Nevertheless, this dramatic drop in reported cases gives great hope to the fight against child abuse.

First among the theories explaining the dramatic drop in child abuse rates is the idea that there is greater public awareness of the issue. Linda Spears, vice president for public policy for the Child Welfare League of America, states: "It was a hidden concern before-people were afraid to talk about it if it was in their family." She also surmises that the decline is due to social programs designed to help child abuse offenders.

A second thought is that rates have dropped because of a crackdown on child abuse during the 1990's. Although the "war on drugs" has yielded questionable results in terms of substance abuse rates, David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, states that intensified efforts by the criminal justice system resulted in higher rates of arrest and prison terms for child abusers. Additionally, child protective services also saw an increase in their workforce. The result of Finkelhor's "troop surge" has apparently been a drop in child abuse rates.

Finkelhor also offers another theory which may have contributed to the decline in child abuse. Rather than focusing on the efforts of the public sector alone, he points out the potential benefits of pharmaceutical companies in the private sector. He believes that advances in medicine have given child abusers additional tools to overcome their behavior.

Stigma also plays a role in this issue-for better or worse. As long as our society focuses only on punishing offenders, there can be no great change in future behavior. However, when the possibility of rehabilitation enters the picture and we offer our support (while disdaining the act), future rates of child abuse can be dramatically curbed. This effect of stigma is something that is hard to overstate. In another place, I called for a "war on stigma" in addition to the wars we clamor for to combat various social ills. We can certainly do more to eliminate the evils of our society by looking at the entire picture and seeking to understand all of the issues.

A 26% decrease in reported child abuse rates does not signal the immediate end of the problem. It certainly does not ease the pains of those who have been and those who are currently victims. However, progress is progress. In this case, the results may be due to greater public awareness, a crackdown on child abuse by the public sector, advancements in medicine by the private sector, and/or a changing role of stigma in our society. Whether due to these theories or others yet unmentioned, the results of this study certainly offer hope for our future. It would be a great thing indeed if these results could be added upon, signaling the beginning of the end of child abuse.


* Information for this blog is taken from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35205114/ns/health-kids_and_parenting

* For a more detailed discussion on the role of stigma in combating social ills, see my 2009 article in the Hinckley Journal of Politics at: http://www.hinckley.utah.edu/publications/journal/2009_Hinckley_Journal.pdf