Editorial Roundup: United States

Feb 20, 2024, 10:26 AM

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

Feb. 17

The Washington Post on suicides in federal prisons

Convicted sex offender Whitey Bulger’s murder both made headlines as shocking failures of the federal prison system. But the shortcomings that led to these famous men’s deaths weren’t the exception — they were the rule.

The Justice Department’s inspector general this week released a report on the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ manifest difficulty keeping inmates alive. Between 2014 and 2021, the investigation reveals, a total of 344 individuals died by suicide, homicide, drug overdose or other accident. The number has been increasing steadily, even as the prison population has decreased. The majority of these deaths by unnatural causes were suicides; the majority of those suicides involved inmates in single cells. The evidence suggests they were preventable.

It’s not news that the bureau is beset by problems. This summer, the inspector general released a separate report on a surprise inspection conducted at the Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee, a women’s prison. There, inmates dined on moldy bread and rotting vegetables, as well as cereal from bags with insects in them stored in warehouses contaminated with rodent droppings. This disgraceful treatment surely lowers the quality of life of those in residence. But other operational flaws at Tallahassee mirror the ones this week’s report identifies as contributing to avoidable deaths: short staffing among correctional officers; crumbling infrastructure; insufficient coverage by security cameras as well as haphazard screening for contraband.

Some of the missteps the latest report spotlights could be averted by revising department policy. The Bureau of Prisons, for example, has been scrutinizing its rules on single-celling inmates — which, when those individuals are also in restrictive housing, amounts to placing them in solitary confinement. (Bulger, after his stay in a single cell pending a transfer, declared he had “lost the will to live.” ) But no policy update has come, and in multiple instances the inspector general discovered that individuals deemed at risk of self-harm were nonetheless housed alone; one of these inmates died by suicide a day after his placement in a single cell at a transfer center. The bureau ought also to modernize its security camera apparatus — a priority recommendation from the inspector general — and conduct random searches of staff to guard against illicit substances making their way inside prisons’ walls.

Other issues plaguing the country’s prison system aren’t a matter of setting new standards but of adhering to existing ones. More than 100 of the 187 suicides in the report were by inmates in the lowest category of mental health care. The disconnect likely results in part from inadequate training for those conducting assessments; many staff, the report says, didn’t attend the requisite sessions with psychologists. Worse, sometimes those assessments didn’t even take place — either prisoners weren’t evaluated at intake, or they didn’t receive follow-up evaluations even when they exhibited behaviors, such as giving away their possessions or refusing meals, that suggested they were at risk.

Sometimes, lapses in communication led to disaster. One service (say, health services) might recognize an inmate’s condition but fail to tell another (correctional services, for example) — or vice versa. And neglecting to complete searches of inmates’ cells could be fatal. Just as officers claimed they had searched Epstein’s cell but somehow left him enough sheets to hang himself, one stunning story featured in the report is of an inmate found dead with 1,000 pills in his unit — though it was reported searched the previous day. Staff also didn’t conduct rounds as frequently as protocol required. In one instance, following the rules could have allowed patrollers to spot an inmate braiding the rope he eventually used to kill himself.

Perhaps most troubling of all, prisons have no way of knowing the extent of their own deficiencies. For more than one-third of the deaths covered by the report, records were lacking. No wonder: Key information on many of the bureau’s problems is absent. Director Colette Peters, asked on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last month how many additional officers the agency needed to mitigate its personnel crisis, said the bureau will specify the number “very soon” — by October, she expects.

Fixing the bureau’s shortcomings will require sustained focus, which we hope Ms. Peters brings to an institution that has had six directors in as many years. It will also require money from Congress and support from the president. Unlike Jeffrey Epstein and Whitey Bulger, the more than 300 individuals who died preventable deaths in prisons over the past seven years didn’t make the news — but they mattered just the same.



Feb. 16

The Wall Street Journal on the wealth tax

Wealth taxes are like a specter in search of a host, and an already overtaxed New England state may be the first to succumb. Vermont lawmakers want to tax residents’ unrealized gains, hoping to finally break the barrier that’s kept them from draining asset values year after year.

The state’s top tax legislator has spent recent weeks pushing bills that would dial up taxes on high earners. The biggest reach is a proposal to tax the paper gains from assets above $10 million. The plan would slap Vermont’s 8.75% top income-tax rate on half of those gains. That means a family whose business gains $3 million in value could owe $131,000, even if they don’t take out a single dollar of cash.

Like levies on capital gains, the new tax would cut into investment returns and leave well-off Vermonters less reason to deploy their money in wealth-producing investments. Unlike a capital-gains tax, the wealth tax would create a mess of confusing estate appraisals and endless disputes with the revenue department.

This is why no state currently taxes unrealized gains, but the author of the Vermont plan says the novelty is the point. “Given the state of our national politics, it really is up to states to be moving these things along,” said Ways and Means Committee Chair Emilie Kornheiser last year. Lawmakers in 10 states are working on wealth taxes this year, and she wants the progressive Green Mountain State to be first to enact one.

Vermont is a popular haven for escapees of the punitive taxes in New York and Boston, and GOP Gov. Phil Scott has made the modest suggestion that a wealth tax might drive these newcomers out. Alas, Ms. Kornheiser has an answer for that one. Before introducing the bill, she brought in a Cornell sociologist to debunk the “myth” of millionaire tax flight. Never mind the masses leaving the Northeast for Florida and Texas. Relying on sociology explains a lot about progressive tax policy.

Few state tax increases are launched without the aid of teachers unions, and the national wealth-tax push began with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Ms. Kornheiser wrote her bill with help from Fund Our Future, an advocacy group that traces its origin to a 2019 AFT campaign and has spawned tax proposals in California, Maryland, New York and more. The unions want to open new revenue streams for future contracts.

Ms. Kornheiser also introduced a fallback plan to tax higher earners if the wealth-tax bill doesn’t win enough support. Instead of targeting assets, the second bill adds a 3% surtax on incomes above $500,000, bringing the state’s top income-tax rate to 11.75%. This Plan B could raise nearly $100 million a year in revenue—at least until New York’s tax refugees decide to relocate elsewhere.



Feb. 16

The Los Angeles Times on FAFSA applications

The federal government had supposedly made it much easier to apply for college financial aid. Except there was a glitch and students could not access the new online tool they needed. Applications were delayed by months and the numbers of students seeking aid plunged.

That’s the scene in 2024. No, wait, that was 2017. Actually, it’s both.

It seems as though each time the dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid is made easier, it (temporarily) gets a lot worse. Never has the problem been bigger than this year, when colleges have been forced to put off their application deadlines to allow more students to work their way through the impossibly mangled FAFSA system, when they can at all.

Students are getting stuck in repeating loops, or told by the website that they already have accounts when they don’t, and if they try to access this unheard-of account, they can’t. Some parents who don’t have Social Security numbers find they can get through the system without one. Others can’t. School counselors who try to help their students get error messages but no indication of what the problem is or how to overcome it. The U.S. Education Department, which is responsible for the FAFSA, has set up help lines, but the lines are swamped with calls and many students can’t get through. As a result, the number of applications is half what it normally would be at this point.

This week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the department would soften many of the requirements for income verification, a complicated process for colleges that shouldn’t be necessary anyway, since the new system uses families’ federal tax returns. He’s also lowering other bureaucratic hurdles.

It’s a good start but not nearly enough. Cardona should hire a host of quickly trained people to answer phones or work with families online to fill out their paperwork then and there. He also must stand prepared to offer additional financial aid to students who miss their colleges’ deadlines through no fault of their own.

Above all, the public is owed an explanation of what appears to be a bungled rollout of the new system. The online application, which had been promised by late October, was late by nearly three months. And once it was up and running, the endless loops, mysterious error messages and other glitches made it look more like a rush job in its early phases than a sophisticated system that would lighten the load on families.

Democratic lawmakers want guarantees that Cardona will make sure students don’t fall through the cracks. Republicans want a Government Accountability Office investigation of the still-chaotic FAFSA rollout. Both are right.

But lawmakers also played a significant role in creating the financial-aid pandemonium this year. The Department of Education was ordered to produce this new, simpler FAFSA system at the same time that it had to start collecting student loan payments, which had been on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s two massive projects, without receiving the funding the department had estimated it needed to produce a smoothly running operation. The price of that cheapness will be high.

That’s something to remember the next time the federal government wants to “simplify” FAFSA.



Feb. 18

The Guardian on Julian Assange

It is not a secret that Julian Assange can divide opinion. But now is a time to put all such issues firmly to one side. Now is a time to stand by Mr Assange, and to do so on principle, for the sake of his freedom – and ours. There can be no divide over the attempt by the United States to have the WikiLeaks founder extradited from Britain to face charges under the US Espionage Act, which reaches a critical stage in London this week. The application embodies not just a threat to Mr Assange personally. It is also, as this newspaper has consistently argued over many years, an iniquitous threat to journalism, with global implications. It poses the most fundamental of questions about free speech. On these grounds alone, Mr Assange’s extradition should be unhesitatingly opposed.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published revelatory US government documents exposing diplomatic and military policy in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Four years ago, during the Trump presidency, the US justice department issued a WikiLeaks-related indictment of 18 counts against Mr Assange. It charged him with multiple breaches of the 1917 Espionage Act, a statute that originally clamped down on opposition to America’s entry into the first world war. In recent years, though, the act has mainly been invoked against leakers.

Earlier targets included the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who passed documents to the New York Times exposing US government lies about the Vietnam war. Those charges were eventually dismissed, but it was a close-run thing. The Espionage Act contains no public interest defence. A person charged under it cannot present evidence about the content of the material leaked, cannot say why they did what they did and cannot argue that the public had a right to know about the issues.

Those restrictions are no more acceptable in Mr Assange’s case than in Mr Ellsberg’s time. The free press still matters. Journalists sometimes depend on whistleblowers. The relationship between them is particularly delicate and important in cases where national security is invoked. When the unequalled global power of the US is involved, the stakes are especially large.

But even national security, and certainly the national security of a global superpower, cannot in every single circumstance invariably override the public interest in publication and the right to know. That was the core issue in the Ellsberg case, as it also was in the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden cases. In Espionage Act prosecutions, however, that public interest argument is always muzzled.

This week, Mr Assange’s lawyers will seek leave to appeal against the extradition decision made in 2022 by the then home secretary Priti Patel. If he is extradited, and unless the UK relents or President Biden intervenes, he faces a criminal trial in which his arguments will be silenced, and a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for each of the Espionage Act charges. If convicted, he could be locked away for his lifetime.

The implications for journalism are every bit as serious. This newspaper’s journalism, and that of potentially every newspaper based in the US or an allied country, would be at risk too. If the prosecution succeeds, the New York Times lawyer in the Pentagon Papers case has said, “investigative reporting based on classified information will be given a near death blow”. That prospect is on the line in the courts this week. A society that claims to uphold freedom of the press cannot possibly remain indifferent.



Feb. 19

China Daily on Gaza, Ukraine and the upcoming U.S. election

The generosity US lawmakers have displayed in approving sizable military assistance to Israel — about $32 billion over the past month — is in stark contrast with their stinginess toward Ukraine.

That is directly reflected in the respective situations on the ground. While the Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiivka last week, a key town which in recent months had become one of the most fiercely contested battles on the eastern front, because of critical shortages of ammunition, Israel is continuing to carry out large-scale bombing of Rafah, the city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled. Interestingly, US President Joe Biden tells Tel Aviv enough is enough and Kyiv never to give up.

It is the moral pressure from the international community over the heavy loss of civilian lives in Gaza that has prompted the Biden administration to fake its discontent at Tel Aviv going too far. Its true intention is that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu government should take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime chance of the Hamas-led Oct 7 attacks to get things done over the Palestinian question once and for all, while avoiding open conflict with Iran.

The US’ aim is for a stronger Israel to help offset the US’ withdrawal from the Middle East to a certain extent. Neither the Israeli hostages nor Palestinian civilians have ever been the consideration of Washington or Tel Aviv.

The US’ strong support also provides the Netanyahu government a golden chance to pull through its domestic troubles that would have flared up resulting in its step-down were it not for the crusade it started under the excuse of self-defense and “counterterrorism”.

In a similar light, it is also too early to predict the Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from Avdiivka represents a turning point in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as Kyiv can use it as a leverage to prompt the US lawmakers to give a green light to more aid. No wonder Biden directly tied the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka to the US Congress not approving additional military aid for Ukraine, seeking to make the most from the incident to pass the buck for the Ukraine quagmire to the Republicans.

Actually neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would like to see a quick end to the Ukraine crisis as they both want to claim the credit for engineering an end to it under their respective government after winning the upcoming presidential election.

That being said, until Washington thinks the political value of the Gaza and Ukraine crises have been exhausted, neither one will have a quick end.


National News

Associated Press

A judge temporarily blocks Iowa law that allows authorities to charge people facing deportation

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked an Iowa law that allowed law enforcement in the state to file criminal charges against people with outstanding deportation orders or who previously had been denied entry to the U.S. U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher issued a preliminary injunction because he said […]

44 minutes ago

Associated Press

Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear a challenge to governor’s 400-year school funding veto

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ partial veto that locked in a school funding increase for the next 400 years, the justices announced Monday. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Litigation Center filed a lawsuit in April arguing the governor exceeded his authority. The group […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Retired AP reporter Hoyt Harwell dies at 93. He covered key events in the American South

HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Hoyt Garland Harwell, a longtime reporter for The Associated Press who covered key events in the American South and was a mentor to young reporters, has died. He was 93. Harwell died at home June 12 following a brief illness, according to his obituary. Harwell worked for the AP for 42 […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Federal appellate panel sends Michigan pipeline challenge to state court

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s lawsuit seeking to shut down part of a petroleum pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac belongs in state court, a federal appellate panel ruled Monday. The pipeline’s operator, Enbridge Inc., moved the case from state court to federal court more than two years past the deadline for changing […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Small plane with 1 aboard crashes into a Massachusetts river

LAWRENCE, Massachusetts (AP) — A small plane with one pilot aboard crashed into a Massachusetts river on Monday, according to authorities. It wasn’t immediately clear if the pilot survived the crash or was injured. The Federal Aviation Administration said the single-engine Van’s Aircraft RV-6A crashed into the Merrimack River in the town of Lawrence at […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

No lie: Perfectly preserved centuries-old cherries unearthed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

MOUNT VERNON, Va. (AP) — George Washington never did cut down the cherry tree, despite the famous story to the contrary, but he did pack away quite a few bottles of the fruit at his Mount Vernon home. Dozens of bottles of cherries and berries — impossibly preserved in storage pits uncovered from the cellar […]

3 hours ago

Editorial Roundup: United States