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Other view: Name tags for the Trump era

Once upon a time, the media could say or write “Democrats think. . . .” or “Conservatives want. . . “ and we would know about whom they were speaking. There were always gradations within parties, but we generally knew what “Democratic,” “Republican,” “conservative,” etc. meant. Then came President Donald Trump.

Headline writers were tied up in knots last week trying to describe those reacting to Trump’s deal with the Democrats on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “Republicans” were not uniformly outraged; indeed some are working on legislative fixes. You couldn’t fairly say “conservatives” were outraged for who would call Sen. Jim Lankford, R-Okla., a co-sponsor of the more conservative version of the Dream Act, outraged by progress on an issue he is trying to solve.

Referring to “Trump’s supporters” is tricky too, as in “Trump’s supporters were outraged that . . .” But that’s not quite right either. Even among hard-core Trump idolizers there were distinctions. Laura Ingraham decried the move toward a DACA fix; Sean Hannity implausibly assigned blame to the conservative establishment. Then there are Trump voters, who, it seems, want DACA kids to stay. As William Galston wrote for the Brookings Institution about recent polling:

“The breakdown of the 76 percent who want the Dreamers to remain either as citizens or permanent legal residents is revealing. It includes 84 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Independents, 69 percent of Republicans-and two-thirds of self-identified Trump voters. 60 percent of the voters who ‘strongly approve’ of Mr. Trump’s performance as president want the Dreamers to be allowed to stay, compared to 33 percent who want them to be deported.”

So it would be correct to say some Republicans were outraged, others used the opportunity to get to work on a fix. Some Trump fans blamed him, but others did not and some would be favorably disposed to a DACA fix. I know—it’s hard to fit in 140 characters, let alone a headline.

The left cannot be lumped together either.

Part of the tendency to overgeneralize and label is human nature. We are categorizers to a large degree; the practice is hard-wired into us. Michael Lewis, author of “The Undoing Project,” which recounts the development of behavioral economics, says, “One of the big things the human mind is doing all the time is making similarity judgments: Is this a friend or a foe? Is this a potential mate or not? Is this edible food or not? It’s always classifying. We take it for granted, but we’re doing it all the time.”

We in the media would do well to resist over-categorizing. For one thing, it would enlighten readers/viewers so they avoid adopting inaccurate stereotypes. But in a larger sense, in hyper-divided America we might actually reduce differences, instill respect for one another, and encourage civility by refusing to paint the politic debates in such stark white and black (or red and blue, as the case may be) terms. We could use more nuance and less stereotyping these days. I know, that seems like pie-in-the-sky stuff in a Twitter world. Nevertheless, we can certainly try.


Columnists
Other view: Under attack once again

This appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Faced with an ongoing special counsel investigation, the White House appears to have settled on a novel method of defending President Donald Trump in the court of public opinion: smearing James Comey. Three times this past week, Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused the former FBI director of possible criminal wrongdoing. While leveling such charges in the absence of any evidence would have been inappropriate enough, Sanders went on each time to hint that the Justice Department should “look at” Comey’s supposed transgressions—a wink and a nod that borders on a threat to use law enforcement as a political tool against the president’s enemies.

Speaking from the White House lectern, Sanders suggested that Comey had violated the law both in giving false testimony before Congress and in sharing with the New York Times a memo documenting the president’s request that the FBI drop its investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When asked why she believed Comey’s conduct to have been illegal, Sanders presented a hodgepodge of legal arguments with little relevance to the former director’s actions.

According to Comey’s sworn testimony, the memo he provided to the Times did not contain classified information. This rules out his having violated his nondisclosure agreement with the FBI. Yet Sanders pointed to that agreement along with the Privacy Act, which governs disclosure of personal information contained in government files, such as medical records. There’s nothing to suggest that Comey’s memo contained any information that would be protected under the statute or that the memo was housed with FBI records. Sanders stated that the former director prepared the memo on a government computer. But even if that were enough to transform the document into a record covered by the Privacy Act—which is far from clear—there’s no public evidence to support Sanders’ claim that Comey used an FBI computer to draft that particular memo.

Sanders’ strongest argument is that Comey may have transgressed the terms of his employment agreement with the FBI. But breach of that agreement would not be illegal. And Comey had already been fired when he passed the memo to the Times.

The legal reasoning behind Sanders’ attacks on Comey may be risible, but the White House’s willingness to groundlessly malign an adversary should be taken seriously. It’s one thing for the president’s legal defense team to try to persuade the public and the special counsel that Comey is not a credible witness. It’s quite another to leverage the power of the presidency against a political adversary and hint at a Justice Department investigation on the basis of paper-thin claims. By now it may be naive to hope that Trump will come to respect the importance of independent law enforcement. But he would be wise to keep in mind the catastrophe that engulfed his administration when he assaulted that independence by firing Comey—and abandon this latest attack.


Columnists
OTHER VIEW
Stapilus: High price of jail housing

Back when I was covering police and courts for Nampa-Caldwell newspapers, we liked to call it—in honor of a former county sheriff—the Dale Haile Jail. Technically, it was the Dale Haile Detention Center, which it still is.

What it also was then, and still is, is too small.

At least, for the demands being placed on it.

On Thursday, according to the online jail roster, it held 431 inmates, just short of the 477 beds it has. (Weekends tend to be busier.) The situation actually is more complicated because, as one staffer told a reporter, “I can’t put a female in with a male. I can’t put a sex offender in with a murderer. You’ve got to be able to separate all these people out.” And there are people who might have been put in jail if there was a place to put them.

And there’s a lot of traffic in and out. The site noted that, “In 2011, Courts and Transport Deputies drove 65,000 miles in transport vehicles, screened over 400,000 individuals entering the two Canyon County courthouses and escorted nearly 11,000 inmates to court appearances from the detention center.”

Overall, one review after another for many years has maintained that more jail space and overall capability is needed. The Canyon County commissioners recently ordered another review from the DLR Group, a large national building design firm, and it found that Canyon needs a jail able to handle at least 1,000 inmates—double the capacity it currently has.

And that’s just to get the county through the next decade.

The pressure is considerable, because building this thing would cost a lot of money (the county hasn’t released an exact number, but it will be big). The county’s voters have, three times in a row, turned down bond proposals for jail construction.

This is worth pondering even if you don’t live in Canyon County because the jail problems it faces are not so radically different from those faced by many other counties.

Ada County, for example, has space for about 1,200 inmates. Since its population is a little more than double Canyon’s (which has capacity for 477), that sounds about right … except that Canyon is really needing capacity for more than 1,000. Which means Ada County probably should be looking at capacity for 2,500 or so.

Yes, this is expensive.

And there are only so many alternatives.

One might be cheap housing, down to and including tents—a popular idea in some quarters. But aside from temporary and limited use, it won’t work in solving the larger-scale issues of security and safety.

You could simply decide to quit jailing people when the beds are full. That may mean jailing low-risk minor offenders and letting the violent and dangerous go free.

Or, you could suck it up and raise taxes to pay for new jail buildings and staff. It would solve the problem of what to do with the inmates, though it wouldn’t make taxpayers happy (as in Canyon at least it hasn’t).

Or, we might try reconsidering what we choose to jail people for, and maybe try to find other ways of dealing with some of the offenders.

Just a thought.