STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Fighting Crimes Against the Elderly
America’s elderly lose more than $2.9 billion annually to financial exploitation, according to a study published by MetLife Mature Market Institute. Crimes include taking money or property; stealing an identity to make unauthorized charges on credit cards; forging a signature; getting an older person to sign a deed, will or power of attorney through deception, coercion or undue influence; using property or possessions without permission; and overcharging for a service. Also illegal are telemarketing scams by perpetrators who deceive, scare or exaggerate claims to get elderly people to spend or send money.
The swindlers target vulnerable seniors, including recent widows or widowers they find easily through newspaper death announcements, says the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. They offer to work for the senior citizen as a personal care attendant or helper, professing their sincere love and loyalty.
Financial crimes against the elderly and other vulnerable adults are widely believed to be under-reported, making statistics very limited and unreliable. At least 26 states and Puerto Rico are considering legislation this year.
Last year’s enactments include the following.
- Delaware created a way for financial institutions to freeze transactions when they suspect an elderly person is being exploited and to report it to authorities.
- Illinois broadened the definition of financial exploitation and clarified when guardians of elderly victims can bring civil actions.
- Maryland required certain money transmitters to train employees on how to recognize and respond to financial abuse and exploitation.
- Massachusetts funded an elder abuse hotline.
- Missouri stiffened existing laws against financial abuse of the elderly and the failure to report it.
- New Hampshire established the crime of financial exploitation of an elderly, disabled or impaired adult and imposed a mandatory prison sentence for a second offense.
- Pennsylvania ordered a feasibility study on expanding the existing network of elder abuse task forces.
- South Carolina created a program for volunteers to serve as guardians ad litem for vulnerable adults in abuse, neglect and exploitation proceedings.
- Tennessee increased penalties for the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable adults.
- West Virginia ruled that being a guardian, conservator, trustee, attorney or holding power of attorney is, by itself, not a defense against a charge of financial exploitation of the elderly. In addition, West Virginia prohibited nursing homes from hiring anyone convicted of certain crimes, including those involving financial exploitation of a minor or elderly person.
Mind if I Vape?
As sales of electronic cigarettes have grown, so have questions about the health risks they may pose, including the possible effects of the secondhand vapors they emit. New Jersey, North Dakota, Utah and several local governments across the country have banned the use of e-cigarettes in indoor public areas, and some states have banned them in state buildings, such as schools and universities. Lawmakers in several other states are considering similar bans on indoor vaping, often by including them in their clean indoor air acts.
Research on these “nicotine delivering systems” is relatively scant. E-cigarettes—also called vaporizers, vapes or digital cigarettes—don’t contain tobacco or tar and don’t produce smoke like traditional cigarettes do. Instead, they come with cartridges containing flavored liquids, and a small battery that heats the liquid, converting it into vapor.
Studies have shown some of these vapors contain nicotine and the carcinogen formaldehyde. Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights believes e-cigarette emissions are dangerous and quotes Dr. Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California on its website: “If you are around somebody who is using e-cigarettes, you are breathing an aerosol of exhaled nicotine, ultra-fine particles, volatile organic compounds and other toxins.” The American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and other health groups support bans on indoor vaping.
Others say the science is too new to know if secondhand vapors carry serious health risks. They argue e-cigarettes are probably safer than traditional smokes, mainly because they don’t contain tar and don’t emit the same chemicals produced by regular cigarettes. They maintain e-cigarettes can help prevent some people from smoking traditional cigarettes in the first place, or can help long-time tobacco smokers kick the habit.
A bill is making its way through the California Assembly to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places and to tighten enforcement against any sales to minors. Debate there reflects similar discussions happening elsewhere. “Whether you get people hooked on e-cigarettes or regular cigarettes, it’s nicotine addiction and it kills.” Senator Mark Leno (D), who introduced the legislation in California. “We’re going to see hundreds of thousands of family members and friends die from e-cigarette use just like we did from traditional tobacco use.”
Opponents, like the American Vaping Association, counter that “smokers deserve truthful information about smoke-free alternatives, not hype and conjecture designed to scare them away...” from e-cigarettes.
At least 41 states ban the sales of e-cigarettes to anyone under age 18 or 19.
—Mary Winter and Karmen Hanson
Math for Wee Ones
While improving early literacy skills in prekindergarten through third grade students has received the lion’s share of attention from the nation’s policymakers, a growing effort for strengthening math skills in young learners is underway.
Researchers have pointed to the positive long-term achievement of students who demonstrate good math skills at an early age. These effects can carry over to higher academic achievement at age 15 and even correlate with higher socioeconomic status (a combination of occupation, housing and income) at age 42.
With this kind of potential, developing mathematical skills in our youngest learners is being touted as one possible solution to the growing achievement gap between students who live in poverty and those who don’t.
In additionally, regardless of family income, average American math scores on standardized tests decline as students progress from elementary to middle schools. In the most recent “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS, 2011), U.S. fourth graders ranked 15th internationally, while eighth graders dropped to 24th.
Expanding early math curriculum into prekindergarten classrooms and developing specific math content knowledge for educators, along with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focused education are effective ways, many believe, to help students do well while in school and be prepared for the increasingly complex and technical jobs awaiting them when they get out.
The importance of developing early mathematical skills in the nation’s youngest learners becomes even more urgent as workforce development and international competitiveness vie for policymakers’ attention.
Advocates support expanding universal prekindergarten and strengthening teacher education programs. But debate over the high costs of some of these reforms is never far from the discussions. —Matt Weyer
Math Education By the Numbers
American students are falling behind their international peers in mathematics on several measures, with significant gaps growing in the years after students move from elementary to middle school. Why? Answers range from a lack of early education to poverty.
Portion of American fourth graders who scored proficient or better in math
Portion of American eighth graders who scored proficient or better in math
Portion of middle- and high-income eighth graders proficient in math
Portion of low-income eighth graders proficient in math
Portion of students at or above 200% of the poverty line enrolled in kindergarten
Portion of students living below poverty line enrolled in kindergarten
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, for 2013
There’s no excuse for it—parking in a disabled parking space when you’re not disabled—but it’s happening all over the country.
Able-bodied drivers are getting hold of phony handicapped parking placards and stickers, or “borrowing” a loved one’s placard, so they can park in prime, close-in spots, often for free.
Not only are they making life harder for people with disabilities, they’re also bilking cities out of millions of dollars in lost meter revenue. Schemes run the gamut. Fraudsters forge doctors’ names on applications for the permits; copy or print their own permits or placards; steal placards out of cars and use or sell them; alter the expiration date; help themselves to an elderly relative’s placard; or appropriate that of a deceased relative.
States, which generally are in charge of issuing disabled parking permits, are cracking down with tighter controls and stiff fines. Also, some cities that used to make handicapped parking free now charge, in part to remove some of the incentive for abusers.
States are taking the following approaches:
• Photo IDs. At least three states—Massachusetts, New Mexico and South Carolina—require placards to include a photo of the owner. Similar legislation failed in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
• Doctors’ statements. Recent laws in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Washington require applicants for disabled parking stickers to obtain a detailed physician’s statement verifying the disability. In Illinois, a person can get a sticker for free parking if a doctor verifies the person is physically unable to use a parking meter. Michigan requires a physician’s statement concerning the nature and estimated length of the disability. Massachusetts requires certification that the passenger is legally blind or is unable to walk for more than 200 feet without assistance. In New Jersey, a person can qualify for a tag if he or she has lost a limb, cannot walk without assistance or is permanently disabled.
• Placard expiration dates. At least two states, New Jersey and Washington, require disability placards to display prominently printed expiration dates. New Jersey’s law now requires them to be renewed every three years.
• Penalties. Connecticut levies a $500 fine for using a deceased person’s placard. (The statute also requires the motor vehicle department to periodically check death registration records and cancel any placards issued to people who have died.) Massachusetts upped fines to $500 for a first violation and $1,000 for subsequent violations and a 30-day license suspension. Michigan imposes a $500 fine for lying to a doctor to get a permit and a $250 fine for forging one. In New Jersey, illegally obtaining a disability tag carries a fine of up to $10,000 and 18 months imprisonment.
Some state motor vehicle departments are trying to help police crack down on scofflaws by providing them databases of disabled permit holders. And Washington hopes to make offenders develop a little empathy. Falsifying a disabled parking permit there is a misdemeanor; a second offense mandates 40 hours of community service “that may sensitize the violator to the needs and obstacles faced by persons with disabilities,” the law states.
Asleep at the Wheel
Drowsy drivers were involved in less than 3 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes between 2005 and 2009, according to official government statistics. But a new AAA report paints a very different picture. According to the automobile association, between 2009 and 2013, drowsy driving was a factor in 21 percent of fatal crashes and 13 percent of crashes involving hospitalizations.
It’s very difficult to tell when a driver is sleepy, drowsy or fatigued. While alcohol- or drug-impaired driving leaves physical evidence, drowsy driving does not. Drivers involved in crashes may be hesitant to admit they were fatigued, unaware of how tired they were or even unaware that they dozed off at all.
The official government statistics come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which relies solely on police officers’ reports following accident investigations. To track drowsy driving, AAA examines the police reports as well, but also uses trained investigators to interview drivers and passengers, and analyzes data from a large sample of crashes.
Drowsy driving is certainly a safety hazard: Drowsy drivers have slow reaction times, poor judgment, impaired vision, lowered attentiveness and a lack of alertness.
But drowsy driving is also a difficult issue to legislate, and only a few state legislatures have done so. In 2013, Arkansas made the offense of “fatigued driving” a negligent homicide (a class A misdemeanor) if the driver has not slept in 24 hours and causes a deadly crash. A New Jersey law classifies drivers who have not slept in 24 hours as “reckless” when they cause a crash resulting in death, placing them in the same class as intoxicated drivers.
Other states have tried to raise awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving. Utah installed road signs warning of the dangers of drowsy driving and providing information on where to pull over to rest. And Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas have designated a week or a month to raise awareness of the dangers and promote prevention activities.
This year, Maine lawmakers are considering legislation that would create the offense of fatigued driving, and New York lawmakers are looking at a bill to create the offense of driving while drowsy and vehicular homicide caused by driving while one’s ability is impaired by fatigue.
In mid-March, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind indicated the need for better data to understand the problem of drowsy driving. He said NHTSA will work closely with states to learn what legal and enforcement stratagies are most effective, beginning by looking at the impact in the handful of states that have passed laws specifically targeting drowsy or fatigued driving.
Public Plan for Private Workers
Illinois enacted a groundbreaking law in January that, depending on who’s talking, either paves the way to a secure retirement for millions of private sector workers or overburdens small businesses and clashes with federal law.
The Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program Act creates the nation’s first state-sponsored, automatic enrollment, Roth IRA (Individual Retirement Account) program for private sector employees who have no employer-sponsored retirement savings account program available to them. Officials estimate there are around 2.5 million of these workers in Illinois. Only a half of private sector workers currently participate in any form of employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Participation will be mandatory for established employers that do not offer retirement plans and have 25 or more employees. It will be optional for smaller and newer employers. Employees will automatically contribute 3 percent of their paychecks, unless they elect a higher amount or opt out altogether, but no employer match or contribution is required.
Supporters want to capitalize on employee inertia and economies of scale. According to the bill’s chief sponsor, Senator Daniel Biss (D), the legislation “creates a tool that allows people to use a payroll deduction to save for retirement, even if their employer doesn’t currently have a plan. It automatically enrolls people so you have a higher rate of participation [and] it puts people into big pools so they are not paying high fees.”
Opponents are wary of what they see as a one-size-fits-all solution. “In many cases a Roth may not be the best-suited retirement vehicle when looking at the tax advantages of other plans,” says Senate Assistant Minority Leader Dave Syverson (R). “Unfortunately, most employees are not knowledgeable” about how retirement plans work, how funds differ and what the tax advantages are of the different plans, he says.
Critics voice concerns about whether the law places unfair new burdens on employers and if it increases the incentive for employers to drop existing plans. And there are also unresolved questions about whether ERISA—the federal law that sets strict rules for the sponsors of private sector employee benefit plans—threatens the viability of the Illinois legislation.
Since 2012, at least 20 states have introduced legislation to authorize state plans for nongovernmental workers or examine their feasibility. In 2012, California passed its own Secure Choice bill, which requires a market analysis to be completed before it is implemented. Massachusetts is finalizing its state-run plan for nonprofit employees, and the U.S. Treasury Department is rolling out a federal “myRA” program aimed at wage-earners without workplace retirement plans.