Guest Columns

HUDSON: THOSE AT THE FRINGES OF OUR SOCIETY BEWARE

For discussion this week: Venial sins, petty offenses and the art of the blind eye

The Colorado Statesman

Both the clergy and the courts acknowledge there are transgressions so minor that no number of them will extend our sojourn in purgatory or add to earned prison time. For these misdemeanors there are no “three strike” rules. Little white lies and photo radar tickets are all of a kind — sufficient to outrage the Puritan moralists in our midst, but unlikely to inflict lasting harm beyond that brief flash of shamed conscience. But, what of offenses we witness and choose to ignore? More to the point, what is our responsibility in a democracy when the villain is government itself? When does silence in the presence of official injustice become a moral failing of its own?

I am not speaking of the paranoid style in American politics, which perceives malice in nearly every exercise of legislative power. Bureaucratic criminality occurs, to be sure, but brazen corruption is thankfully rare. Sins against decency generally emerge as the bastard offspring of good intentions. Time, habit and allegiance to an enforcement mentality swaddle government in a cloak of self-righteous zeal. In recognition of this propensity for running itself off the rails, elected leaders periodically empower searches for government waste and inefficiency. Shortly after his election in 2010 Governor Hickenlooper hired an outside consultant with half a million dollars of private funds to ferret out these suspected cesspools of indolence and privilege. The Governor correctly recognized that his Cabinet appointees were unlikely to identify longstanding problems in a timely way.

It is certainly true that the first employee to perceive the waste of taxpayer dollars is likely to be a frontline worker where those dollars are actually spent. After months of exertion, the Governor’s investigators elicited nearly a thousand recommendations for improving service and reducing costs. At the end of the day, however, their collective fiscal impact proved de minimus. In a multi-billion dollar budget, a few million in savings here and there created barely a ripple of financial relief. It was a worthy exercise and one that should probably be scheduled every few years, but there was not, is not and never has been a bonanza of undetected fraud, waste and abuse. A corollary inquiry that might prove even more valuable, however, would be to ask these same employees to point out instances in which government gouges, clips, cheats or fails to deliver promised services to the public.

Surely, you might think, if such instances exist we would be aware of them. Or, would we? Certainly the rich and powerful are swift to squall like mashed cats when government is slow to plow their streets, clean their alleys or return their calls. They expect their government to be responsive. Is treatment different for those who cannot write checks to campaign committees, hire attorneys or even know who to call? I can’t offer a thousand examples of indifference, although with half a million dollars I could probably come close. With the Colorado Legislature back in session we can profitably examine a pair of circumstances that should affront the conscience of any fair-minded voter. They provide an opportunity for legislators to demonstrate their professed concern for people. Either of these embarrassments could be resolved before adjournment. (Don’t hold your breath.)

The New York Times editorial page complimented the Federal Communications Committee earlier this month for cracking down on the exorbitant charges levied on telephone calls placed by prison inmates. In Colorado, collect charges often run $10 dollars for each five minutes from most of our jails. If you are interested in placing a few dollars in an inmate’s canteen account — handling fees can approach 25 percent. What, you didn’t know about this? In an era of shrinking resources, government agencies have looked for every opportunity to increase their revenues. In some respects this is an admirable thing. The fiscal pressure has been even higher in Colorado, where these auxiliary fees can be excluded from TABOR spending limits. Parasitic private contractors, who dangle a portion of their earnings before our jailers, provide these pricey services.

Corrections professionals know, of course, that inmates have a far better chance of successfully returning to our communities when they enjoy regular contacts with family and friends. We also know that most of them come from families with limited financial resources. So, why in God’s name, have we erected a tollbooth at the jailhouse door? The FCC ruling will limit phone charges to twenty cents a minute, but there is still an opportunity for mischief with videoconferencing, e-mails and other services. And, why isn’t there an option for families to make contributions into inmate accounts at the jail for a nominal fee? Why are they required to pay fees to a payment contractor? Why is government operating a racket that undermines the very objectives of our justice system? If a corrections officer accepts money from an inmate to smuggle contraband into a prison — he or she will be prosecuted for bribery. But, when a warden signs a contract that funnels tens of thousands of discretionary dollars into his or her budget — well that’s just shrewd management. Ain’t that terrific! Something we can each be proud of.

Another group that works at the margins of our economy where we fail to see them clearly are strippers. In Colorado many, if not most, strip bars hire their exotic dancers as ‘independent contractors.’ They maintain the fiction that a pole dancer has rented their stage for three or four numbers, and then again when they come back up on the rotation schedule. The owner isn’t required to provide Worker’s Compensation insurance, much less health care, with this ruse. Guess what? Exotic dancers get injured. They pull muscles, rip up their knees and break their wrists falling off dimly lit stages — all at their own risk. Whatever you may think of exotic dancing as an art form, many of these women are burdened with student loans and mouths to feed. In most cases the men — and it is almost exclusively men who patronize these clubs — are unaware that the dancers don’t enjoy the same protections that come with their jobs. When dancers placed a jar at the door of a club in Southern Colorado to help pay for “Marisol’s Knee Surgery” patrons donated thousands in between slipping dollar bills under G-strings. Something else we can be proud of, I suppose. (Surely there is a legislator who can see the media potential in running this bill.)

There is no political price to pay in continuing to turn a blind eye towards those at the fringes of our society. And pundits wonder why 40 percent of Americans never vote and 60 percent who do, say their vote doesn’t make a difference? If they just had a PAC and a good lobbyist, they would understand how well the system works for organized money.

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and columnist for The Colorado Statesman.