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Archive for August, 2009

The Caesar Rodney Institute has released “Rogue Force,” a special investigative report that reveals how guards at the Sussex Correctional Institution are physically abusing inmates in their care.

Laurel businessman David Sully was beaten by guards at the Sussex Correctional Institution (SCI) in June. Sully’s facial wounds required nearly a dozen stitches to close.

The eight stories in the series reveal how Delaware is breaking an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, in which the Department of Correction (DOC) promised to improve its shoddy medical care, which federal investigators determined was violating the civil rights of the 6,900 inmates in state custody.

CRI investigative reporter Lee Williams wrote the special report.

The special report examines physical abuse by guards at SCI and its consequences. It tells David Sully’s story and that of inmate Benjamin Sudler, who had both legs amputated due to inadequate medical care. This series also reveals how the state’s well-compensated prison monitor is doing little to fix the problems.

The series suggests solutions to the problems within the DOC and includes more than 30 questions that Correction Commissioner Carl Danberg refused to answer.

We will continue to publish follow-up stories on the Institute’s Web site. The Caesar Rodney Institute is committed to reporting about the problems revealed in “Rogue Force” until the state makes substantive changes to its prison system.

Contact investigative reporter Lee Williams at (302) 242-9272 or lee@caesarrodney.org.

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Just clunkers

Though more clearly a national issue than a specifically Delaware one, I think that commenting on the floundering Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS)/Cash for Clunkers system is now an appropriate action to take, in large measure due to the program’s demonstrated failures.

As the NY Times reports, the CARS program will end this coming Monday, giving dealers and consumers only a few more days to take advantage of this modern-day Agriculture Adjustment Act. Fellow-poster Garrett has previously commented on the original difficulty the program faced—a lack of funding one short week after it began, which resulted in tripling the initial funding. While I disagree to some extent with his initial analysis (I, personally at least, do not think that the elimination of functioning capital is outweighed by minor environmental concerns or by claiming stimulus—especially when such goals could be addressed alternatively, but that is not the point here), I think his original point bears repeating: the CARS program has been grossly mismanaged, offering another example of government inefficiency.

As I am sure anyone who has been following the news is aware, few dealers have received the promised reimbursement from the government, leading GM to (inexplicably) offer a cash advance to dealers to continue their enrollment in the program. Others have simply dropped out of the program.

Perhaps most troubling is the President’s response to the problems faced with regard to the CARS program:

“And we’re now slightly victims of success because the thing happened so quick, there was so much more demand than anybody expected, that dealers were overwhelmed with applications.”

Making excuses — especially ones that blame failure on success or pass the responsibility onto “overwhelmed” dealers — is disingenuous. Perhaps there was much more demand than anybody expected, but the administration seemed to have no plan for such a possibility. Granted, the rousing success (I hesitate to call it such) of the program could have been beyond the realm of predictability, but my instinct is that this was hardly the case. More likely, in my opinion, is that there was too little planning and/research done prior to launch, resulting in a pathetically botched reimbursement system.

I do not intend to equate this program wholly with healthcare, since I recognize the two are substantively very different and one’s success does not predict directly another’s. I do not think it is unfair, nevertheless, to bring up the question of the government’s capacity to predict and manage a complex national system involving various satellites (here, the dealerships) seeking federal funds for their services. The CARS program is not unique, merely currently popular. Innumerable other governmental failures could illustrate the same problem: there is a poor incentive structure and a lack of planning on the government’s part. This isn’t an easily dismissable concern, and I graciously welcome anyone who wishes to address it to do so.

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After the tax hikes that came out of New Castle County a few weeks ago, it’s promising to see their recently released report of a smaller-than-previously-projected budget deficit for FY2010. To be fair, it’s hardly the best possible news (after all, there is still a $7 million budget deficit unaddressed) for the county, but it’s certainly better than one would expect.

The decrease in the budget deficit comes as a combination of increased taxes and decreased spending. The press release by the county lists (in an annoying block paragraph form, for whatever reason) some of their cost-saving measures, including hiring freezes, refinancing of debt, and various favorable contract changes for utilities and services. The county also mentions talks about reforming some of its union contracts, as well.

Putting aside the tax increases that came earlier this summer, this is great news. A cursory glance at the FY2010 budget overview reveals spending cuts from the previous year in nearly every category highlighted, with exceptions for the Register in Chancery and the Debt Service. New Castle County’s experience demonstrates well how cost-cutting measures can close the gap on an otherwise outrageous budget deficit. There are still problems that require fixing, of course, but it would be wrong not to give some praise to NCCo for taking any measures toward reducing governmental expenditures.

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After a lengthy delay, Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker announced yesterday that the city would be accepting some 3.5 million dollars in federal stimulus funds, with the intent to hire an additional 16 police officers. The funds are supposed to cover the 16 positions for 3 years, with the city required to keep the officers on for at least a fourth year. Due to an unlisted set of expenditure requirements (likely equipment, etc.), the positions will still cost the City 1.7 million over the next 4 years, with the majority (1.4 million) coming in the second half of this period. For the fifth year and beyond, the cost of retaining all of the 16 officers is estimated to be 1.5 million dollars annually.

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) federal program was initially designed to provide a sort of bridge-grant to communities forced to lay off police officers during the economic downturn. Wilmington is seeking to modify the terms of the plan to permit it to hire additional officers, rather than to maintain its current staff (a previous local agreement saved potential layoffs).

This particular program is a tough topic to discuss. There are few areas of government spending as generally justified as those dedicated to the safety and security of citizens. My trouble with this particular plan concerns the source of funding: a complicated mish-mash of federal, state, and local funding to varying degrees, with the burden shifting ultimately onto local and state funding. The desired shift from the program’s initial focus on saving existing staff from layoffs seems to only underscore the potential ill-effects of this policy. Furthermore, given this past year’s budget troubles, taking on future spending increases right now without matching cuts or revenue sources scheduled to balance them out is effectively gambling with the sustainability of the project (ceteribus paribus — the city could of course increase taxes, but it really is time we stop thinking of that as a magic fix).

It seems fairly certain that crime will still be as much of a problem for Wilmington 5 years from now. As such, the precipitous elimination of 16 police officers would have catastrophic consequences. Given that presumption, and given the amount of time the city put into merely deciding whether or not to take the funds, it would be especially heartening if there was any assurance that the city had a plan in mind apart from the general economic recovery to be able to cover these 16 officers in the future. Absent such assurances, I am left hoping rather blindly that the city has any plan at all. I’m a little skeptical.

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Off the record

Something I (unfortunately) hardly ever noticed has finally received some public attention: the growing prevalence of “off the record” remarks.

I highly recommend the article, but in brief: off the record comments to journalists have increased in popularity, with some speeches now prefaced with the dreaded “off the record” caveat even when the speech is given publicly to a large audience. As the article describes, off the record comments disproportionately impact professional journalists — those with the integrity and reputation at stake who would suffer by revealing the identities of the off the record speakers. Those lacking such incentives — bloggers, for example — are free to name and publicize irrespective of whether remarks are on or off the record.

While this justification strikes me as initially low-impact — it is difficult to gauge precisely how much damage is caused by the off the record remarks to journalists — I think the article does highlight an important problem. What the article does not focus much attention on, and what I think is possibly the bigger issue, is how the off the record remarks greatly inhibit the public’s ability to hold officials accountable for what are obviously their policies and ideas, but which are veiled behind a short phrase.

For major public officials to be permitted to remove themselves from the policies they are covertly advancing constitutes an unduly large barrier to public accountability. If the public does not know who is behind publicly outrageous remarks, there is no incentive for these officials to choose their policies and statements carefully. The public needs this level of accountability to make informed decisions as citizens.

None of this is to completely ignore the difficulty public officials face in today’s technologically advanced society, nor do I think that all comments should be given on the record (factual tips, for example, seem likely to especially benefit from anonymity). With every comment scrutinized, reviewed, and attacked by some faction or another, the incentive to make as many remarks off the record as possible is clear. Despite this difficulty, it seems fairly straightforward that the burden of planning remarks and thinking about statements ahead of time should fall on politicians or sources, rather than place an equivalent burden on citizens to determine from where specific comments come.

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Anticlimax

Governor Markell has been making repeated efforts (some more nominal than others) to increase Delaware’s attractiveness to businesses. In keeping with this trend, he announced the creation of a new(ish) post, the Economic Ombudsman, to be filled by his current Deputy Legal Counsel, Cleon Cauley Sr. The establishment of the new position is not scheduled to cost taxpayers any more money, as the new responsibilities will be added onto Mr. Cauley’s current ones.

Comparatively speaking, this new initiative strikes me as relatively anticlimactic. Even if the new position is a rousing success, I have trouble imagining that a single additional position (especially one whose responsibilities are shared with another position) will be capable of greatly affecting Delaware’s attractiveness to business. The most interesting part of the release (and the least covered), I thought, concerned Rapid Response Teams. These teams, if implemented as stated, could actually make a difference, at least if they really do find ways to “expedite the review and permitting processes.”

I am naturally skeptical of how much success can ever be directly attributed to this, or any other, new effort of this sort (the strategic timing of reorganizing and creating new initiatives at the bottom end of a recession is rather good on Markell’s part), but I find no immediate fault with this development. No additional taxpayer funding is set to accompany the Ombudsman position (nothing mentioned about funding for Rapid Response Teams, which leaves an open question), and the intent at least is unobjectionable. Hardly much to get excited about, though.

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Just curious

But having recently begun perusing Delaware’s online bidding system, I stumbled upon some items I cannot seem to place.

The most obviously confusing request I found, though, came under the description of the relatively innocuous “Personal Care Products.” The full list of items sought can be found here. (Note that there are some exclusions later established, listed here)

My first suspicion was that these items would be for Delaware’s prison population, which would be unobjectionable. I scanned through the list of items, though, and found a separately marked section for products for the Department of Corrections (in the above-linked list, these products start on page 17 of the pdf), leaving the majority of the products unaccounted for. The original listing reports that these items are required by “VARIOUS DELAWARE STATE AGENCIES,” without listing which agencies those are.

A not-so-random sample of items in the listing include:

Sensodyne Toothpaste, 4 oz. tube (No Substitutes) – 1 case

Colgate Toothpaste Tartar Control w/Baking Soda & Peroxide 6.4 oz (No Substitutes) – 50 cases

Shick X-treme 3 Comfort Plus for Xtra Sensitive Skin #9466 48/case (No Subsitutes) – 4 cases

X-tra Care Lotion, 12 oz/24 case (No Substitutes) – 29 cases

Accent Plus Hunnington Antibacerial Skin Lotion, 72/4 oz btls/case (No Substitutes) – 33 cases

Etc. There are some items listed as 0 cases which I have deliberately excluded (having little idea what it would mean to order 0 cases of something, when no item quantity is listed).

I am, of course, quickly picking what I think are rather controversial items, given their No Substitutes status and overtly luxurious quality (not that it really matters logically, but do many individual consumers even enter the supermarket with a strong “No Substitutes” policy for their toothpaste or razors?). I wish to clarify in stating that I do not want to be so bold as to claim the state is definitely wasting this money — all the items may have very strong reasons for refusing substitutes of a different sort. Without positive evidence to lead me to that conclusion, I do admit that the list does look rather negative and presumptively wasteful/unnecessary, even if it is not.

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