Hypocrisy on crime

By Amy Ridenour
web posted November 15, 1999

Which government activity deserves funding from your tax dollars?

  • Funding lawsuits to stop public housing authorities from evicting criminals;
  • Funding a government lawsuit against gun manufacturers on the theory that criminal violence in public housing is largely the fault of gun manufacturers.

As contrary as these two activities are, part of our government believes in doing both.

The federal government's Legal Services Corporation allows its funds to be used to keep criminals - as long as the criminals are not committing drug crimes - from being evicted from public housing.

Legal Services used to fight to keep drug dealers from being evicted from public housing as well, but Congress forced it to stop in 1996. It continues to represent persons who allow their public housing unit to be used for drug manufacturing and dealing, however, just as long as someone other than the actual leaseholder commits the drug crime. 1

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Andrew Cuomo, has "expressed interest" in filing a HUD lawsuit against gun manufacturers. 2 The suit would be filed on behalf of some or all of the nation's 3,400 public housing authorities that receive federal funding on the theory that persistent crime in public housing is substantially the fault of gun manufacturers. HUD is considering asking a court to force gun manufacturers to reimburse public housing authorities for funds they've spent over the years on alarm systems and security guards.

Never mind that if a person living in public housing breaks a gun law, the federal government, through its Legal Services Corporation, may use tax dollars to prevent his eviction, as it did in one recent case in Washington state. 3

The federal government is willing to use tax dollars to fight in court against evicting most criminals from public housing. Yet it may sue gun manufacturers because there are criminals in public housing.

Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a group that monitors Legal Services activities, thinks the government's position is senseless.

"It's clear beyond all debate that Legal Services Corporation funding has hurt public safety by protecting criminal elements in public housing," Boehm says. "As long as federal tax dollars are used to protect criminals in public housing, it is outrageous that the government would try to blame a legal industry, gun manufacturers, for crime in public housing."

Several things have led to this contradictory policy.

Continued funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which was created to help poor persons who need legal services, is supported in part because politicians like to be seen as caring for the poor. Liberal politicians especially like the Legal Services Corporation because the lawyers it funds tend to file lawsuits that push public policies toward the left.

As a result, Legal Services Corporation abuses, though numerous (in one case it funded an attempt by a child molester to obtain custody of a 12-year-old girl born as a result of his molestation of her mother when the mother was herself a 12-year-old girl 4), hasn't substantially lessened support among politicians for continued funding. Even getting Congress to put strict limits on the types of lawsuits the Legal Services Corporation can fund is difficult.

Meanwhile, lawsuits against gun manufacturers are popular with politicians for other reasons. A successful government lawsuit can raise additional billions for politicians to spend without the political inconvenience of directly raising taxes. For Democrats, government lawsuits that give private trial attorneys a cut of the proceeds (as most do) are an opportunity to repay trial attorneys for their generous contributions to the Democratic Party. And filing lawsuits relating to popular causes and getting press attention for doing so often gets politicians favorable publicity.

Politically expedient though they may be, the government's contradictory policies waste taxpayers' money and aren't sound public policy. Poor folks don't want to live with criminals and legislatures, not courts, should make our gun laws. Americans have the right to expect the government to use their tax dollars as wisely as possible. But wisdom has apparently flown out the window. These cases should be about preventing crime but instead seem to be more about promoting ideology, making money, paying off campaign contributors and making politicians look good at taxpayer expense.

Footnotes:

1 National Legal and Policy Center, Legal Services Accountability Project Report #88, October 4, 1999, reporting on Memphis Housing Authority v. Thompson, 1999 Tenn. App. LEXIS 506 (Tenn. App. July 29, 1999).
2 Paul M. Barrett, "HUD May Join Assault on Gun Makers: Local Housing Authorities Could File Big Lawsuit, Bolster Efforts by Cities," Wall Street Journal, July 28, 1999.
3 National Legal and Policy Center, Legal Services Accountability Project Report #88, October 4, 1999, reporting on Housing Authority v. Horn, 1998 Wash. App. LEXIS 1293 (Wash. App. Sept. 4, 1998).
4 National Legal and Policy Center - Legal Services Accountability Project, Legal Services Accountability Project Report #84, July 26, 1999, downloaded from http://www.nlpc.org/lsap/report/Issues/rep84.htm on July 28, 1999. The report says: "In a shocking case, the Legal Aid Society of Nebraska, an LSC recipient, represented a child molester attempting to gain custody of a child he had fathered through the sexual abuse of the child's mother. The molester, known in the court records as Walter R., impregnated the child's mother when he was thirty-five years old and she was twelve years old. After the mother's parental rights were terminated in 1997, Walter R. filed suit in state court seeking to gain custody of the child, a twelve-year old girl named Gloria. At trial, it was established that Walter R. had never before requested visitation with the child nor paid any child support. The caseworker assigned to Gloria expressed concern that placing Gloria with Walter R. would expose her to the same type of sexual abuse that happened to her mother. Indeed, Gloria herself expressed 'revulsion' towards Walter's sexual abuse of her mother. Both the trial court and the Nebraska Supreme Court soundly rejected Walter's attempt to gain custody of Gloria. See In re Interest of Gloria F. v. Walter R., 577 N.W.2d 296 (Neb. 1998)."

Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to ARidenour@nationalcenter.org.




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