Sustained Outrage

GAO: EPA drops the ball on drinking water, Part 2

We reported here last week about a U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found major problems with federal EPA’s inaction in regulating new drinking water contaminants over the last 15 years.

Today, the GAO offers us another example of  regulatory “underreach” by state officials and by the EPA.  The latest GAO report is called Drinking water: Unreliable State Data Limit EPA’s Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems’ Performance. It concludes:

The data states reported to EPA for measuring compliance with health and monitoring requirements of SDWA did not reliably reflect the number of health-based and monitoring violations that community water systems have committed or the status of enforcement actions.

The report was released today by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and their news release summarized the overall findings this way:

— States audited did not fully and accurately report 20 percent of the health-based drinking water violations (these refer to violations of the legal limit of contaminants allowed in drinking water) that they should have provided to EPA in 2007, and 26 percent of such violations in 2009.

— In 2009, states audited did not fully and accurately report a staggering 84 percent of drinking water monitoring violations (these consist of failures to monitor drinking water, or failures to report violations to state regulators or the public, and were found to be a predictor of health-based violations) to EPA.

— From 2002-2004, audited states did not accurately report 27 percent of the enforcement actions they took against drinking water systems to EPA. Unreliable data on enforcement actions leaves EPA with no sense of whether water systems have returned into compliance and reduces EPA’s ability to ensure that it is achieving its goal of targeting enforcement resources to systems that truly need it

— Incomplete and inaccurate data on violations hampers EPA’s ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and impedes the agency’s ability to communicate and assess its progress toward reducing public exposure to toxic chemicals in drinking water.

— EPA has in the past conducted audits that have identified state inefficiencies and poor practices and that have lead to improved data quality. However, because of funding constraints these audits have been, at least temporarily, discontinued. Additionally, EPA has not required states to take specific actions to improve data quality.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said:

GAO found that states are failing to report important safety information from EPA. Rather than slashing funding for this critical public health resource, Congress should be moving legislation to improve the reporting and policing of drinking water violations.

And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., added:

They say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but when it comes to drinking water, it turns out that all too often, EPA has no idea whether it’s broke. To add to the problem, House Republicans have just proposed to cut $134 million dollars from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program, which provides money to states and public water systems to comply with the law and increase public health protection.

As for EPA, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said:

In order to truly improve our water quality and help our communities budget for water quality infrastructure, we must be able to accurately analyze the quality of our drinking water systems. Fighting to protect our water quality is a responsibility to the American people that I take very seriously. Unfortunately, it is clear that EPA needs to improve their data collection efforts in relation to our drinking water systems in order to hold accountable those states that are not taking their public health responsibilities seriously enough.

There’s a new study out today from The Pew Center on the States that concludes:

West Virginia spent $1.44 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2010, yet the state cannot answer critical questions about what returns this investment is generating in the areas of jobs and commerce, mobility, access and environmental stewardship.

According to a press release from Pew:

The state leads the way in measuring transportation’s impact on the key goals of safety and infrastructure preservation. But overall, it trails behind other states in having the essential tools–goals, performance measures and data–needed to help decision makers choose cost-effective transportation funding and policy options.

The study is available online here, and they have a West Virginia Fact Sheet posted here. They also have an interactive map.

According to Pew:

West Virginia fares well in measuring its transportation system’s progress in advancing safety and infrastructure preservation. For instance, the state aims to resurface 8.3 percent of its paved highways every year so that the entire system will be revamped over a 12-year cycle. But with other goals, such as jobs and commerce, the state has room for improvement. For example, West Virginia does not have performance measures and data to assess transportation’s progress toward mobility and environmental stewardship. It has only one performance measure–transit ridership–for access. The state set a goal of boosting rural transit ridership by 1.5 percent each year, a target it met for a few years before ridership fell in 2010.

Robert Zahradnik, director of research, Pew Center on the States, said:

West Virginia lawmakers should make transportation policy and spending choices based on evidence about what works and what does not. Unless states have clear goals, performance measures and data to generate that information, it is very difficult for policy makers to prioritize transportation investments effectively, target scare resources and help foster economic growth.

Who writes the prescriptions?

Last week, the Center for Public Integrity published an interesting piece that noted that fraud in the form of misuse of doctors’ ID numbers is so rampant that Medicare cannot identify the top prescribers of certain drugs, particularly Ritalin and oxycodone, both of which are addictive and prone to be abused.

According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) report released last week , the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are not checking to make sure that prescriptions paid by the health insurance plans that contract with Medicare are written by real doctors.

The new report, based on 2007 data, said invalid physician prescriber numbers are so common in Medicare records that the program cannot identify the doctors who prescribed the most oxycodone and Ritalin. Both are highly addictive and frequently trafficked on the street.

The OIG also said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could not indentify the second-highest prescriber of methadone, a drug used to treat heroin addiction that is also sometimes diverted to street markets. The new report, which supplements a similar effort published by the OIG last June, focuses just on drugs with potential for abuse, which are known as Schedule II.

DuPont to pay $70 million in Spelter settlement

This just in: Lawyers for DuPont and for the residents of the Harrison County community of Spelter have announced the proposed settlement of a major lawsuit over toxic pollution of the community by a DuPont smelter.

According to this news release from the two sides, DuPont will pay $70 million for cleanup costs and “other costs and expenses associated with the litigation.”  the company also agreed to provide periodic medical testing and check-ups to current and former residents for 30 years “so as to ensure that any effects from exposure are discovered and treated in a timely fashion.”

A copy of the proposed settlement is posted here, along with a public notice about a court hearing scheduled for Dec. 30 at which Harrison County Circuit Judge Thomas Bedell will be asked to approve the deal.

UPDATED: Under the settlement, an initial $4 million from the $70 million would be directed to an administrator to start the medical monitoring program. On top of that, DuPont would pay for the 30-year program — which is estimated to cost perhaps $80 million, making the proposed settlement’s total price more in the neighborhood of $150 million.

It’s also important to note that the settlement does not preclude the filing of future personal injury cases should the medical monitoring show that any residents were made ill by exposure.

Fees and costs for the residents’ attorneys will come out of the $70 million initial settlement amount.

According to the notice, lawyers for the residents intend to ask the court to also approve $30 million in legal fees and $11 million in expenses to be paid by DuPont.

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Crime, prison and public perception

It’s election season, which means we’re likely to hear a fair amount of “tough on crime” talk from candidates trying to shore up their law-and-order credentials. But what do voters really think about crime and punishment?

A new study by the Pew Center on the States looked at that question, and came away with some interesting results. People want to keep their communities safe, and want criminals held accountable for illegal activities, the study noted. Makes sense. But it’s the third takeaway from the polling that really bears repeating:

Voters believe a strong public safety system is possible while reducing the size and cost of the prison system.

Here are some underlying attitudes that the study identified:

• Crime is a low concern; only 2 percent of voters rate crime or drugs/alcohol as the most important problem facing their state.

• Voters believe the primary purpose of prisons is to protect society (31 percent), followed by rehabilitate (25 percent) and punish offenders (20 percent).

• Voters want offenders held accountable for their actions, especially by ensuring they pay child support (79 percent cite as a high priority) and restitution to their victims (72 percent).

• Most voters feel safe in their communities, but 42 percent believe (mistakenly) that violent crime is up nationally.

• There are big perceptual differences in the way people approach violent and nonviolent offenders. From a series of focus groups we learned there is often considerable empathy expressed for nonviolent offenders and their life circumstances. Participants look for punishments that do not include prison, opting for community service or other punishments. Substance abuse treatment and job training are often considered appropriate.

The fact that two out of five Americans think that violent crime is on the rise made me go look at the FBI’s latest Unified Crime Report, particularly where violent crime is concerned. Here’s a graph of the national trend for the last five years:

And here’s a graph (admittedly for a longer time frame, 2000 to 2009) of the prison population in America, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

It is encouraging that the prison population in America is growing at a much slower rate. But it is still growing, which goes against the fact that violent crime is down. For that matter, property crimes are down too, according to the FBI.

It’s understandable that there might be a slight lag until the prison population begins to reflect the decreasing number of crimes committed. But really, why aren’t there fewer people in prison if there are fewer crimes being committed?

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Judges and prison sentences

I promise I didn’t set out to make this Prison Week here at Sustained Outrage, but I keep finding interesting information about America’s exploding prison population. Today’s installment comes via the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which in 2007 voted to reduce sentences for crack cocaine violations.

This month, the commission published the results of a survey of federal judges it conducted between January and March of this year. So, how do the group of people tasked with deciding how much time convicted offenders spend behind bars feel about the sentences they hand out?

Well, the answers may surprise you.

When asked if the mandatory minimum sentences associated with various offenses were appropriate, a solid majority of 62 percent said that they are two high in general. When asked about minimums associated with specific crimes, most judges said they were appropriate, with three notable exceptions: For drug trafficking crack cocaine, 76 percent said the minimums are too high. For marijuana crimes, 54 percent said they were too high. And for receiving child pornography, 71 percent of judges surveyed answered that the minimum sentences are too high. This was not the case for production (only 23 percent said too high) or distribution (37 percent) of child pornography.

These results were echoed when the judges were asked about the appropriateness of the ranges suggested by the federal guidelines, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled are advisory in important opinions in Kimbrough and Gall.

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Prison vs. public safety

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s post about billions of dollars in potential savings through parole, the Justice Policy Institute published this study which concludes that America’s prison population (which has exploded in recent decades) can be safely reduced without posing a threat to the public.

States that spend more money on education and housing see positive results in reducing crime rates, according to the study, whereas locking more people up doesn’t necessarily correspond with a reduction in crime:

Shifting public dollars away from prisons and towards positive investments in people doesn’t involve a public safety “trade-off.” Research shows that states that spend more on education have lower crime rates than states that spend less. And more funding for housing also correlates with lower incarceration rates. Having a job has also been shown to be one of the largest predictors both staying out of prison and of success for people re-entering the community from prison. With the money saved on prisons, states can maintain or expand education, housing, employment training, and cost-effective services for both youth and adults. In this way, policymakers can maintain safe communities today, while building stronger communities for the future.

Here are some suggestions from the JPI on how to approach the task of paroling more inmates without increasing the threat the public (and keep in mind, these are just the broad topics; the study goes into more depth):

— Utilize risk assessments

— Reduce administrative delays in parole

— Increase access to in-prison programming

— Establish medical parole

— Consider parole for aging people in prison

— Institute better “good time” policies

— Implement or expand work release or community corrections

And here’s perhaps the most obvious (but most important) idea in the whole study: “People need support after release to be successful in the community.”

Substance-involved people have come to compose a large portion of the prison population. Substance use may play a role in the commission of certain crimes: approximately 16 percent of people in state prison and 18 percent of people in federal prison reported committing their crimes to obtain money for drugs. Treatment delivered in the community is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent such crimes and costs approximately $20,000 less than incarceration per person per year. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community yields over $18 in cost savings related to crime. In comparison, prisons only yield $.37 in public safety benefit per dollar spent. Releasing people to supervision and making treatment accessible is an effective way of reducing problematic drug use, reducing crime associated with drug use and reducing the number of people in prison.

The high cost of incarceration

There was an interesting study published this month by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that suggested that if the United States were to release half of the non-violent offenders currently in prison or jail, federal, state and local governments would save $16.9 billion. That figure represents 22.8 percent of the $75 billion spent on corrections in 2008, the majority of which went to incarceration.

Numerically, the proposal would reduce the total prison and jail population (2,304,115) by 712,119, or 31 percent. The reductions would save the federal government around $2.1 billion (the feds have many fewer prisoners), state governments (who oversee the most prisoners) $7.6 billion, and local governments $7.2 billion.

(You can read related posts here, here and here.)

The study reminds us of a few alarming facts about how the prison population has exploded in recent decades.

— At 753 per 100,000 population, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate of any member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. America locks up more of its citizens than Iceland, Japan, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany and Italy combined.

— Since 1980, rates of people locked up in America have skyrocketed: 220 per 100,000 in 1980; 458 in 1990; 683 in 2000, to 753 in 2008.

— Since 1980, America’s prison population has increased by 350 percent, while the overall population has only gone up 33 percent.

— Crime has not increased at anywhere near the same rate to justify the booming prison and jail population. In fact, it has been decreasing steadily since its peak in 1992. If the rate of people incarcerated corresponded with crime rates (using the 220 per 100,000 in 1980 as the starting point), then the ratio would have been highest at 317 in 1992, and by 2008 would have gone down to around 227.

It’s not hard to figure out, according to the study’s authors, why the prison and jail population has grown so explosively:

Stricter sentencing policies, particularly for drug-related offenses, rather than rising crime, are the main culprit behind skyrocketing incarceration rates. The last three decades have seen the implementation of new “tough on crime” policies such as three-strikes laws, truth in sentencing laws, and mandatory minimums. These laws have led to a significant increase in the number people who are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Arrests and convictions for drug offenses have increased dramatically over the last three decades, with non-violent drug offenders now accounting for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars (see Table 3), up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Additionally, during this period, the criminal justice system has moved away from the use of probation and parole. As a result, convicted criminals today are much more likely than in the past to be sentenced to prison or jail, instead of probation, and to serve longer terms, with less chance of being released on parole.

While the increase in incarceration is better explained by a shift to harsher sentencing policy than by an explosion in crime, can the case be made that higher levels of incarceration have helped to reduce crime? In a recent review of the extensive research on the relationship between incarceration and crime, Don Stemen, of the Vera Institute of Justice, concludes: “The most sophisticated analyses generally agree that increased incarceration rates have some effect on reducing crime, but the scope of that impact is limited: a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with a 2 to 4 percent drop in crime. Moreover, analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve.”

Thus, the available evidence suggests that the higher rates of incarceration have made some contribution to lowering the crime rate, either by acting as a deterrent or by warehousing offenders during the ages in their lives when they are most likely to commit crimes. But, the impact of incarceration on crime rates is surprisingly small, and must be weighed against both its high monetary costs to government budgets and its high social costs to prisoners, their families, and their communities.

However, there is at least one small indication that governments may be catching on that there may be benefits, financial and otherwise, to having smaller prison and jail populations. According to this study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of total prisoners in America’s jails at mid-year 2009 was down from the previous year, the first time the total has decreased since 2000.

A primer in reducing prison populations

A new report by the The Sentencing Project offers four examples of states that have reduced their prison populations significantly over the last decade, even as the overall number of people in state prisons has grown nationally by 12 percent.

Between 1999 and 2009, New York and New Jersey have reduced their state inmates by 20 and 19 percent, respectively. Kansas has cut its prisoners by five percent in six years, while Michigan experienced a 12 percent drop between 2006 and 2009.

As I’ve noted before, the challenging economy has certainly forced cash-strapped states to look for ways to save money, and incarceration is very expensive. But the reductions highlighted by this report may reflect changing attitudes towards sentencing, authors Judith Greene and Marc Mauer note.

As states around the nation grapple with the effects of the fiscal crisis a major area of attention has been the cost of corrections. Over the past 25 years the four-fold rise in the prison population has caused corrections expenditures to escalate dramatically. These increased costs now compete directly with higher education and other vital services within a climate of declining state revenues.

Even prior to the onset of the latest fiscal crisis, though, legislators in many states had become increasingly interested in adopting evidence-based policies directed at producing more effective public safety outcomes. In contrast to the “get tough” climate that had dominated criminal justice policy development for many years, this new political environment has focused on issues such as diversion of people charged with lower-level drug offenses, developing graduated sanctions for people on probation and parole who break the rules, and enhancing reentry strategies.

Despite these developments, prison populations have continued to rise in the past decade, albeit not as dramatically as in the preceding decades. From 2000-2008 the number of people incarcerated in state prisons rose by 12 percent from 1,176,269 to 1,320,145, although with a broad variation around the nation. At the high end, six states expanded their prison populations by more than 40 percent – West Virginia (57 percent), Minnesota (51 percent), Arizona (49 percent), Kentucky (45 percent), Florida (44 percent), and Indiana (41 percent).

By the end of this period, growth in state prisons appeared to have largely stabilized. In 2008, the national total remained steady, and 20 states experienced a modest reduction in their populations that year.

While a growing trend towards stability may be emerging, this development needs to be assessed in context. Even if there should be a leveling of population growth, that would still leave prison populations at historic highs that are unprecedented in American history or that of any other democratic nation. The consequences of such a situation for fiscal spending, public safety prospects, and impact on communities is very troubling.

That’s right, folks, while the number of prisoners was shrinking in some states, West Virginia led the nation in growth of prisoner population. Does anyone really believe that there was a 57 percent jump in the number of crimes committed here over the last decade?

I’ve listed some of the successful methods in reducing the number of inmates listed in the report after the jump.

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OSHA and DuPont: Belle plant seldom inspected


Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

When federal workplace safety inspectors walked through the gates of DuPont Co.’s Belle, W.Va., chemical plant yesterday to begin investigating worker Carl “Dan” Fish’s death,  it was the first them they had set foot in the place in nearly five years.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration last inspected the Belle facility in March 2005.  That’s despite the fact that, as the federal Chemical Safety  Board pointed out:

The DuPont Belle complex is a large facility that is regulated under the EPA Risk Management Program and the OSHA Process Safety Management standard because of the volume and hazards of the materials it handles and the potential risk to workers and the community.

That March 2005 inspection prompted OSHA to cited DuPont for one violation of process safety management regulations, but federal officials settled that case without imposing any fine.

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