Editorial Roundup: New England

Boston Globe. November 3, 2021.

Editorial: Charging for prison phone calls burdens families

While the SJC ponders the “legalized kickbacks” of telecom contracts, lawmakers can fix this now.

It’s a relatively simple proposition: Good corrections policy that helps those behind bars maintain family ties can lead to better outcomes — like lower recidivism rates and more successful reentry to the community.

That raises the question of why county prisons in Massachusetts, and those run by the state as well, charge big bucks for inmate phone calls — costs actually picked up by families or attorneys on the receiving end. Worse yet, why are sheriffs allowed to collect hefty commissions on those telephone contracts?

Those questions are now before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which heard arguments Monday in a case brought against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson for the fees he charged inmates in his facilities, but the answer will impact all of the state’s sheriffs.

Hodgson’s dubious corrections policies, like his early fondness for resurrecting chain gangs, make him an easy target. So, too, the enormous amounts of money collected from the phone contract. Between 2011, when Hodgson entered into a contract with Securus, a private telecommunications service, until 2013, the sheriff’s office collected more than $1 million in commissions, according to briefs filed in the case. Under a 2015 contract, the commissions were eliminated in favor of a lump sum arrangement of $820,000 over four years.

The company presumably recouped that and more with its monopoly over service — and phone rates that doubled under those contracts, according to the amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The ACLU called those agreements and commissions “legalized kickbacks” from “a correctional telecom provider with yearly revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, (earned) at the expense of Massachusetts families with incarcerated loved ones.”

Nationwide, private telecom companies take in some $1.4 billion from prison systems, of which the ACLU estimates Securus collects about half. The company services all but two Massachusetts counties, plus the state’s Department of Correction, according to data compiled from public records requests by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

Most of those contracts now set rates at 14 cents a minute (the state contract calls for rates ranging from 12 cents to 16 cents a minute). But, as recently as 2018, Securus was charging Bristol County inmates $3.16 for that first minute, plus 16 cents a minute thereafter.

“Families who want to avoid the high cost of phone calls have few inexpensive options for staying in touch with loved ones,” the brief noted. “An e-mail to or from a person in a Massachusetts prison starts at $0.25 and a video call (billed per 20-minutes) incurs a $12.99 fee.”

During the COVID lockdown, when phone calls and Zoom meetings provided a lifeline for most families, prisons, which were closed to visits, were still allowing Securus to gouge inmates. It wasn’t until this summer that the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association agreed to allow 10 free minutes of calling time per week to each inmate and to assure a top rate of 14 cents per minute.

“As the nature of corrections continues to evolve in the Commonwealth, we are proud to reaffirm our commitment to maintaining and strengthening familial bonds,” said Steve Tompkins, Suffolk County sheriff and president of the association at the time.

The sheriffs’ agreement, reached in June, to be implemented by Aug. 1, came the same week Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut signed a bill to make all inmate calls free, making his the first state in the nation to do so.

And that really goes to the heart of the issue — above and beyond whatever the Commonwealth’s highest court will do. The court case attempts to get at those pernicious commissions and other cash payments, and whether Hodgson and other sheriffs actually have the power to collect them.

But it’s the state’s lawmakers who can really put an end to the practice and its human consequences. Legislation filed by Senator Cynthia Creem and Representative Chynah Tyler would require all state, county, and juvenile correctional facilities to provide telephone calls at no cost to inmates or to their families and said the prison systems “may supplement” those calls with video conferences or e-mail.

Millions of dollars are spent each year on prison rehabilitation programs, and yet prisons continue to charge for, and make money off, what remains perhaps the most restorative programming of all — reconnecting families through the sound of the human voice. The current policy is simply misguided, and it needs to change.

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Rutland Herald. November 1, 2021.

Editorial: Milestones

The slate grey clouds of stick season remind Vermonters that colder weather is right around the corner. This has been a warmer-than-normal autumn (so far), which has made for continued outdoor activity.

But soon we move indoors, where we return to close quarters.

Our state’s impressive vaccination rate (just under 90% of all eligible Vermonters have received at least one dose of a vaccine) puts us in good standing compared to other states.

But we are still seeing some troubling numbers.

On Monday, Vermont had 163 new COVID cases, bringing the total since the state Department of Health started tracking it up to 40,340. COVID hospitalizations tallied 47 with three of those patients in ICU.

In Washington County on Monday, there were a dozen new cases, bringing the 14-day total up to 214. In Rutland County, there were 23 new cases, bringing the 14-day total to 273.

There have been 368 COVID-related deaths in Vermont — still far fewer than other states.

And more than 516,000 tests have been done here; and some 34,500 individuals have recovered thus far.

The numbers continue to be on track for the Scott administration, which — despite pressure from educators, health care workers and others to reinstate a state of emergency — is holding the line on its “compared to other states” mantra, and doubling down on the position that “what we are doing is working.”

But what happens when we all move indoors?

If the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury is any indicator, there could be rough days ahead this winter. The facility is on full lockdown today after seven incarcerated individuals in general population tested positive for COVID-19.

“All incarcerated individuals live in the same housing unit. The first case was detected through testing conducted October 25, resulting in the unit being placed on full lockdown. Testing on October 29 revealed six additional positive cases from that unit. ... The entire facility will be tested on Tuesday and Friday,” a news release issued Monday afternoon states.

And school districts around the state have also been struggling with spikes in numbers of young Vermonters, as well as educators and staff.

The pandemic continues to take its toll. It may not feel as acute here in Vermont, but the global numbers are staggering.

According to a report on National Public Radio on Monday, global deaths from COVID-19 have surpassed 5 million, according to the data released by Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker.

The report stated the U.S. leads the world in the number of confirmed deaths from the virus with more than 745,800 people dead from COVID-19. Brazil (with more than 607,000 deaths) and India (with more than 450,000 deaths) follow the U.S. in the number of lives lost since the start of the pandemic.

But in other parts of the world, health officials are seeing worrying signs of a coronavirus surge — just as some nations are relaxing measures to international travelers.

Five million deaths. “Yet another tragic milestone of the pandemic comes just as the U.S. prepares to start vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11,” the NPR report stated.

Indeed, the United States is on the verge of expanding its COVID-19 vaccination effort to children ages 5 to 11. It’s a notable milestone during a pandemic in which more than 8,000 children in that age bracket have been hospitalized with the virus, according to the Associated Press.

We need more tools and strategies in this battle against coronavirus, and we need to be following the facts and science so we don’t push into Year Three next March. We hope the next series of vaccinations happen soon, and the rollout is smooth.

The doses for 5- to 11-year-olds are one-third the amount given to teens and adults. They are being shipped in their own vials with a special orange cap to avoid mix-ups with the adult-sized doses.

The kid-sized doses are being distributed to a variety of locations, including pediatrician offices and pharmacies. Counties and schools in some locations are choosing to set up clinics where parents can take their children to get vaccinated.

The vaccines have yet to secure final approval from the CDC, although many believe that will happen this week. The exact day when the first shots will occur is still be to be determined.

In Vermont, based on 2019 Census data, we are talking about 43,996 kids between 5 and 11. The state has 15,900 initial doses, or 36%.

This fall and winter, let’s all kick this thing to the curb.

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Bangor Daily News. November 2, 2021.

Editorial: Susan Collins can help bridge divide on voting rights

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to address discriminatory voting practices that had prevented Black Americans and other minorities from participating in the democratic process. It is considered by many to be one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in recent U.S. history.

Earlier that same year, a young civil rights activist named John Lewis helped lead a march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. These peaceful demonstrators were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” That march, and Lewis’ leadership, helped bring about passage of the Voting Rights Act in Congress. Lewis went on to become a longtime member of Congress himself.

“Selma is a place where we injected something very meaningful into our democracy,” Lewis said in 2014. “We opened up the political process and made it possible for hundreds and thousands and millions of people to come in and be participants.”

Despite that progress, voting rights protections took a significant step backward in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states with a history of voter discrimination to get pre-clearance from the federal government before making changes to their election laws. Importantly, that same ruling invited Congress to update that section.

Flash forward to today, and that is what pending legislation — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — aims to do. The need for this voting rights update has been made clear by actions in state legislatures, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, that look more like voter suppression than election security.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote, with all Democrats supporting it and all Republicans opposing it. And it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where all the chamber’s Democrats and at least 10 of its Republicans would need to support it to even start debate on the proposal.

So far, only one Senate Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has said she will support advancing debate on the bill, which is slated for a procedural vote Wednesday. We hope Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins will join her.

We asked Collins’ office Tuesday if she planned to do so.

“The Democrats have been trying to turn the Voting Rights Act into a partisan issue. When this bill was last reauthorized it passed 98-0,” Collins spokesperson Annie Clark said in a statement. “The two bills presented to the Senate have been thinly veiled attempts to gain a political advantage, and are based on the flawed premise that Washington, D.C. can better run elections than our state and local governments.”

“Here is one example: if the City of Lewiston wants to relocate some of its polling places under this bill it would have to get permission either from the Department of Justice or from the Washington, D.C. District Court,” Clark continued. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

Also on Tuesday, Murkowski and others announced a deal to revise the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in an effort to secure more bipartisan agreement. She has been the lone Senate Republican supporter of the push to craft a bipartisan Voting Rights Act reauthorization. The current bill language is not the same as what Murkowski has endorsed in the past. That’s where Tuesday’s agreement, and the amendment process, could come in — if the debate gets that far.

Frankly, we think Democrats have done a disservice to the overall voting rights debate up to this point by pushing large election and democracy reform packages and pitching them as voting rights bills. The For the People Act was more than a voting rights bill, providing an easy out for Republicans and helping to chart the current voting rights debate on a course of messaging over substance, at least so far.

But this week, there’s an opportunity to change that arc. Reauthorizing and reinvigorating the Voting Rights Act cuts, unsurprisingly, to the core of protecting voting rights for all Americans. It’s a continuation of the work John Lewis and others did during the civil rights movement. The Senate, at the very least, needs to debate this bill.

In 2015, Collins joined Lewis and other national leaders in Selma for the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. She s hared her experience, which included a march in unity over that same bridge, in a Portland Press Herald column.

“But what most amazed me about Rep. Lewis was his infinite capacity for forgiveness,” Collins wrote at the time. “Not a trace of bitterness affects his retelling of the repeated beatings and jailings he endured as he fought for equality as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

Our entire national debate could use a bridge to forgiveness, away from bitterness and toward mutual respect — even if that does not ultimately include agreement. That requires moving past partisan mistakes and entrenched positions. And it requires debating the hard issues, including voting rights.

Collins walked the bridge with Lewis in 2015, and she can continue that walk by voting to advance debate on the bill on Wednesday.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. November 5, 2021.

Editorial: CT can do more to shield students from predators

Any tool — as simple as a hammer or as complex as a computer program — is only as effective as its user.

We need more tools to quell the abuse of children. We also need to use the ones we have.

It’s a topic too many people resist talking about. Even less welcome is contemplation of abuse at the hands of teachers or coaches. But we must not mute the pleas of abused children.

State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, is raising her voice as leader of the General Assembly’s Committee on Children. She wants tougher penalties not only for convicted abusers, but for mandated reporters who fail to step forward.

This comes in the wake of a flurry of new allegations in Connecticut. A Rockville High School teacher was arrested Oct. 18 on state charges of child pornography and voyeurism, for allegedly surreptitiously photographing female students and having child pornography images on his computer and iPad.

Days earlier, police charged a former Plainfield Central School teacher with risk of injury to a minor and fourth-degree sexual assault for allegedly providing three male students with marijuana and receiving shirtless photos of them. The warrant reveals the teacher was fired from Wheeler High School in North Stonington after a separate investigation.

Allegations of this nature aren’t new. There is a long history of headlines about educators convicted for abusing students.

But the tools, thankfully, keep getting upgrades that help educators filter out applicants with records of discipline for inappropriate actions.

Under state law, any name applying for a teaching certificate is run through a criminal background check and a search through the Department of Children and Families’ Child Abuse and Neglect Registry. Obviously, anyone’s record can change once they are in the system, so the Department of Education says they periodically run names through the criminal records database.

It’s encouraging to hear Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, say Connecticut has an outstanding record of using its national database of teacher disciplinary actions.

The need is underscored by the 112,000 names in that database, educators who were formally sanctioned for misconduct.

But we’ve always been troubled by the challenges schools face when it comes to recruiting part-timers, assistant coaches, custodians, paraprofessionals, volunteers and the like. With less scrutiny comes the potential for abuse.

So it stands out like a yellow highlight marker on a failed test when Rogers adds that none of Connecticut’s school districts has a subscription to the database to check these other candidates.

The database may not be the best solution, but it is another tool in the toolbox.

As is the most primitive and effective tool available for educators: communication. Gossip and innuendo can be perilous, but there is the danger that when a problem is identified, the accused can merely resign and move to another school district without leaving a trail behind.

These are complex issues when it comes to the privacy of individuals. But the priority must be to shield students from predators. Children deserve that we use the best tools to defend them.

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Portland Press Herald. October 31, 2021.

Editorial: Reforming child protection system just part of the answer

To really help kids and their families, we need to ask bigger questions about why so many need it.

The deaths of five kids, all 4 or younger, within weeks of each other in June has brought intense scrutiny again on Maine’s child protection system, just as it did three years ago after the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, just as it did following the death of Logan Marr in 2001.

Each of these times, there has been a desire to believe that if someone in a position of authority had just made better decisions, a child would still be alive, and that if child protection workers were just better at their jobs, children would be spared abuse and neglect.

If only that were true.

While there’s no doubt the Office of Family and Child Services within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services needs reform as well as additional tools and resources, the focus cannot be only on that agency.

The problem is much bigger. To get at it, we have to ask bigger questions: Why are so many kids at risk of abuse and neglect, and why are so many parents unprepared and overwhelmed?

SYSTEM NEEDS REFORM

A new review of child protective services tries to put the problems at the agency in context. The deaths of children who had contact with the state were not the result of individual poor decisions, the report argues.

Instead, case workers were making choices within a complex, overstressed system, with the best information available at the time, however limited and incomplete.

That doesn’t take the system off the hook. But it does mean that any reforms need to focus on getting the right people the right information at the right time as much as possible, and providing enough time and space to use that information to make the right decisions for at-risk children.

The state has been hiring and training new child protective staff for months now, as the agency tries to gain the capacity necessary to give each case the time and focus it needs.

In order to have a strong agency, the public must also show it values the work. We can’t blanch at paying workers higher wages, if that’s what it takes.

And as outlined in the Casey report, state officials also must improve coordination and communication with its partners: hospitals, law enforcement and family service providers.

But even once they accomplish all that, child protective services still will be operating in a society where too many families don’t have the resources for a safe, healthy life, and where too many parents are too busy, stressed or distracted by their own challenges to be who they need to be.

FAMILIES NEED SUPPORT

Those challenges manifest in many ways. Just one example is the increasing number of children who start school far behind where they should be, the result of too little attention at home from rushed, stressed or checked-out parents. These students start behind and largely stay behind, making success in school difficult.

Their problems are related to poverty. Students lack sufficient food and sleep. They live in unsafe, crowded or unstable housing. Their family members work odd hours at unfulfilling jobs, and many live with chronic illness.

These are not the conditions that create prosperous children. Thankfully, we are not powerless to change them.

When food assistance was increased and broadened recently, families were lifted out of poverty, and relieved of some of the stress that comes with it. Same with the child tax credits passed under the American Rescue Plan and extended under President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

Investments in affordable housing, preschool and child care, also included in the president’s plan, also directly support young families, giving them the breathing room they need to build their lives.

Those investments will help not only in Maine but across the country, where the pressures of poverty affect children in all the same ways they do here, leading to all the same kinds of problems.

We all want a child protection system so good that no kid dies, and that every child who suffers from abuse or neglect is found and helped. But that system doesn’t exist.

Certainly, Maine’s most vulnerable kids need a robust agency to protect them when their families don’t.

But their families also need the resources to live a stable life, and kids need to see that their communities value them enough to provide it.

END