Soaking States' Rich, Covid Clemency, and 'Red for Ed' Three Years Later

Hi everyone,

Wanted to share some new reporting before you all head off for your MDWs.

1. The first story, published today in The Intercept, looks at a new effort in Connecticut to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents. (Connecticut is also the nation’s wealthiest state.) It comes on the heels of similar successful campaigns over the last year in New Jersey and New York, and I looked at the way advocates and some lawmakers are approaching revenue campaigns with new courage, emboldened to fight back on long powerful arguments that the wealthy will just pick up and leave. That certainly sounds true at first blush, because we know the rich jump through all sorts of hoops to evade paying taxes to the IRS. But in practice it’s just not what happens. People don’t actually move all that often, especially in response to state tax policy. And it’s actually the poor who move the most. This was a neat story to research, and you can read it here.

2. Three years ago, ~20,000 West Virginia teachers went on strike, shutting down public schools across the state for nine days. Their unexpected effort galvanized educators nationwide, leading to more strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, among others. The teacher uprising became known as “Red for Ed” in reference to the red clothing educators and their allies wore each time they took to the streets for public schools.

For Capital and Main, I took at look at education politics now in three of the key ‘Red for Ed’ states — West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona. After the 2020 election, Republicans in red states strengthened their grip on state legislatures and the pandemic also made it particularly difficult to protest what legislators were doing. One result is that Kentucky and West Virginia have passed this year some of the most expansive school choice policies in the country and Arizona is close behind. I talked with teachers, union leaders, and education reform proponents about what’s going on and what’s changed since the teacher uprising. You can read the story here.

3. And lastly I have a story in The Appeal about executive clemency — which refers to commutations (i.e. shortening prisons sentences) and pardons. Governors and presidents have the power to grant clemency, and while laws vary somewhat from state to state, the reality is that governors hold immense sway over the fate of the 1.3 million incarcerated people currently held in state prisons.

One thing to understand about clemency is that for many people locked up, it’s actually their only hope for release. Thousands of people incarcerated over the last several decades were not even given the chance for parole. And even among states that have eased their sentencing rules over the last few years, many have not made those reforms retroactive.

Criminal justice advocates have been urging governors to be more aggressive with the number of commutations they grant each year. This grew even more pronounced during the pandemic, where it was particularly hard to socially distance in prison. Something that struck me as I was reporting was learning that clemency used to be much more regularly utilized, but as it grew more politicized, governors have grown more fearful of using their powers.

Consider this: Throughout his first two terms in office between 1972 and 1980, Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards signed 945 commutations, and another 335 during his non-consecutive third term. By contrast, Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal granted just three commutations over his eight years in office between 2008-2016, and Louisiana’s current Democratic Governor, John Bel Edwards, granted just 36 commutations in 2020.

To put that ‘36’ figure in context, just 5 percent of the roughly 4,600 people sentenced to life in Louisiana are eligible for parole, meaning commutations or pardons are the only hope of release for the remaining 95 percent.

Earlier this year, the ACLU launched a national campaign to encourage governors and the president to exercise their clemency powers more aggressively. This so-called Redemption Campaign is focused on issuing clemency to groups of prisoners, like releasing senior citizens, or those who would be serving a lesser sentence if convicted today.

Polling commissioned by the ACLU also found that 86 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Republicans support reducing prison populations and offering incarcerated people a path toward redemption with clemency. As one legal advocate put it to me, “If people want to end mass incarceration, I can’t think of a better tool than governors granting commutations.” You can read that story here.

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I hope you all have a great long weekend,