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American Civil Liberties Union


The Justice Department Continues to Roll Back Civil Rights Protections

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 15:45 -0500

In a speech on Friday, the attorney general signaled that he will rescind more civil rights guidance from the Obama era. On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions strongly hinted that he isn’t done trying to roll back the civil rights gains made during the Obama administration. In a speech before the conservative Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention, Sessions described an internal Justice Department memo he signed prohibiting his department from issuing “improper” guidance documents. According to the document, “Effective immediately, Department components may not issue guidance documents that purport to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch (including state, local, and tribal governments). The document also stated the Justice Department will no longer issue guidance that “effectively bind private parties without undergoing the rulemaking process.” Behind this bureaucratic language is an attack on the civil rights legacy of the Obama-era Justice Department. Throughout the Obama administration, the Department of Justice worked with state and local governments to protect civil rights and liberties by suggesting practical ways, for example, to eliminate gender bias in policing, legally enforce fines and fees, and dismantle the school to prison pipeline. Sessions has indicated that he may “repeal and replace” these policies, which will roll back important efforts to ensure equal protection for all under the law.Sessions’ repudiation of the Obama-era guidances isn’t shocking. After his confirmation, Sessions quickly rescinded Obama-era guidances on issues such as federal contracts with private prisons, federal prosecutors abusing their discretion in drug cases, and treatment of transgender students. Put simply: Expect more rescissions of Obama-era guidance. Here are the ones we believe are in Sessions’ crosshairs. Racial profiling The ACLU worked for many years with the Obama administration to issue new guidance to curb racial profiling by law enforcement agencies. That guidance, announced in 2014, addressed the use of other characteristics as well, including national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, and sexual orientation. Although it was a step in right direction, it did not fully respond to the crisis of racial profiling in America. Now, even this modest guidance is in jeopardy. Gender-biased policing With advocacy from the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, the Obama administration made significant strides in helping state and local law enforcement agencies address gender bias in their response to sexual assault and domestic violence. A Justice Department guidance issued in 2015 highlighted the need for clear policies, robust training, and responsive accountability systems so that women and men will not end up like our client Jessica Lenahan.Jessica’s estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, kidnapped their three daughters from the front yard in Castle Rock, Colorado, in violation of a domestic violence order of protection. Jessica called and met with the police numerous times in the immediate hours after the kidnapping, but they told her to call back later if the children hadn’t come home. Early the next morning, Simon drove up to the police station and started shooting. The police fired back, killing him and later discovered Jessica’ three daughters dead in the cab of his truck. This work to advise local police departments on how to improve domestic violence investigations, treatment of survivors, and accountability for officers who commit domestic violence and sexual assault may no longer be supported by Sessions’ Justice Department. Fines and fees After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department launched a six-month investigation and found a “pattern or practice” of police misconduct in Ferguson that violated the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution and federal law. The report concluded that Ferguson police engage in racially biased policing, regularly targeting and haras[...]

Remembrance Brings Trans History to Life

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 15:30 -0500

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, take time to reflect on the rich history of trans resistance.

Every year, the transgender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary communities come together on November 20 to remember and honor lives lost to anti-trans violence.

Each year, the number of deaths increases.

Each year, it is mostly brown and Black trans women and femmes who are taken from us.

Transgender Day of Remembrance has historically focused on the stories of those killed in individually-perpetrated violence — the kind of violence in which the attacker can be prosecuted. This is the type of violence that even Jeff Sessions can condemn. But as we watch so many in the trans community suffer and die from homelessness, family rejection, incarceration, unemployment, and suicide, remembrance should reverberate across the stories of deaths less often told.

Our community remembers not only the young Black women killed in the street, but also the young students lost to suicide, the incarcerated bodies cut off from health care, the elders struggling to maintain their housing and preserve their histories, the many lost from neglect in a society unwilling to include, serve, and abide us.

While Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day for grief, it can also be a day to reflect on the rich history of trans resistance, a history that lives on in our storytelling and in the hearts of trans elders who witnessed that history.

One of these elders, Flawless Sabrina, died early Saturday morning. Mother Flawless was an iconic drag queen and guide to generations of young LGBTQ people, many of whom found family and purpose in the bright path of her life and safe shelter in her apartment on Manhattan’s East Side.

Unlike so many we mourn today, Flawless lived 78 full years. She saw, inspired, and lifted up LGBTQ people around the world. She cried for those lost and devoted her life and soul to this community and taught so many of us to hold fast to our truths.

“Life is a learning situation...,” Flawless once recounted in an interview. “I think my grandmother was right, in that you can walk down Madison Avenue with a cow on your head if you do it with confidence. Accentuate the positive, illuminate the negative, and don’t mess with mystery in between. You’re the boss applesauce, believe in yourself without question.”

In memory of Flawless and many others now gone, remembrance can be a step toward building a future from the paths they illuminated.

What the Founders Would Say About Cellphone Surveillance

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 13:45 -0500

Government cell phone tracking clearly jeopardizes the security of the people against unreasonable searches and seizures. On Nov. 29, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in an important case called Carpenter v. United States. Although the question in the case may feel very modern — whether government agents can obtain the location data generated by cellphones without a warrant — history can tell us a lot about how the court should answer that question. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The amendment arose from the Founders’ concern that the newly constituted federal government would try to expand its powers and undermine rights that were guaranteed to Americans by the common law and their state constitutions. Based on experience, they knew that equipping government officers with unfettered discretion to search and seize would be a formidable means of oppressing “the people.” Prior to the American Revolution, British subjects in the colonies and in England had lived with threats posed by “general warrants.” Unlike contemporary search warrants — which require probable cause, judicial approval, and limits on the place to be searched and the things to be seized — general warrants gave government agents license to search wherever they pleased, no matter their reasons, with impunity. And because the king’s ministers could issue general warrants on their own authority, these devices also opened the door to unchecked executive power. This, of course, was a recipe for abuse.Under the authority of general warrants, the king’s agents used the power to search and seize as a tool of oppression, targeting disfavored religious minorities and political opponents, such as those who published pamphlets criticizing the government. Some even used their powers to settle personal vendettas. In a series of mid-18th-century cases, courts in England put a stop to this madness, holding that general warrants violated basic principles of English law and were therefore unreasonable. These courts stressed that the very existence of general warrants made everyone vulnerable to the threat of unreasonable searches and seizures. For example, one influential decision condemned general warrants as “totally subversive of the liberty of the subject” because they gave officers “a discretionary power … to search wherever their suspicions may chance to fall.” Another warned that “the secret cabinets and bureaus of every subject in this kingdom will be thrown open” if general warrants were not forbidden. Across the Atlantic, James Otis, the Boston lawyer who popularized the slogan “taxation without representation is tyranny,” denounced general warrants, which British authorities were increasingly using to find smuggled goods on which taxes had not been paid. In a legendary speech, he derided them as “the worst instrument of arbitrary power,” which placed “the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer.” John Adams later called Otis’s speech “the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.” The Founders recognized that giving the state arbitrary search power harms “the people” in ways that go beyond the indignity of specific trespasses. After splitting from Britain, many states adopted constitutions that guarded against oppressive searches and seizures, and the Fourth Amendment was later modeled on those protections. Read in this historical context, the Fourth Amendment is aimed at denying executive agents the unfettered discretion to conduct searches because of the pervasive insecurity that such discretion creates and the abuses of power it enables. This history lesson is significant because it lights the way in the Carpenter case, where the Supreme Court wil[...]

Too Old and Too Sick to Execute? No Such Thing in Ohio.

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 13:45 -0500

Ohio’s bungled execution of an elderly man shows that the death penalty is broken and barbaric. The famous appellate judge Richard Posner once wrote, “A civilized society locks up [criminals] until age makes them harmless, but it does not keep them in prison until they die.” The state of Ohio apparently hasn’t heard of Judge Posner, as they went one step further and tried to execute an elderly Alva Campbell and failed. Ohio’s lethal injection team spent more than 30 minutes poking Alva Campbell’s decrepit body in search of any decent vein into which they could inject their lethal cocktail to no avail. They finally relented — but only temporarily. Hours later, Gov. John Kasich announced not a commutation — or a plan to investigate what went wrong — but that Campbell’s execution would be rescheduled for 2019. It’s a travesty of justice that Ohio’s bungled attempt at executing Alva Campbell was both predictable and avoidable. Campbell’s attorneys had in fact informed the governor and courts that their client’s abysmal health made him a uniquely poor candidate for lethal injection. Campbell has severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, uses a walker, relies on an external colostomy bag, requires four breathing treatments a day, and may have lung cancer. In a medical examination of Campbell before the execution attempt, doctors failed to “find veins suitable for inserting an IV on either of Campbell’s arms.” Ohio’s only answer to the concerns of Campbell’s lawyers was to give Campbell a “wedged shape pillow” to keep him slightly upright through the execution. It was predictable and avoidable not only because of information furnished to the state by the defense, but because Ohio had already committed a similar bungle in 2009 when it failed to find a suitable vein to execute Rommell Broom after sticking him with needles for over two hours. The ability to find a suitable vein is basic to lethal injection. When it cannot be done — because of lack of training and qualifications of the lethal-injection team or the health of the prisoner — the process becomes impossible and the risk of a failure or botch undeniable. Ohio has earned its execution infamy over time.The state’s lethal-injection team’s inability to find a suitable vein led to the botched execution of Joseph Clark in 2006, who raised his head from the gurney during the execution to say, “It don’t work. It don’t work.” Ohio persisted, working for another 30 minutes to find another vein before resuming the execution. Media witnesses heard “moaning, crying, and guttural noises” before the deed was finally done 90 minutes after it had begun. The botched two-hour execution of Christopher Newton in 2007 also stemmed from the execution team’s inability to access a suitable vein. The state’s botched execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014 has been attributed to the use of midazolam — great if you need a sedative for a medical procedure but unsuitable for executions. The takeaway should be clear. Ohio cannot be trusted to use the death penalty, as time and time again the state fails and causes needless pain and unconstitutional torture. But Ohio is forging ahead. The state’s schedule of more than two dozen lethal-injections through 2022 gives Ohio the dubious distinction of maintaining the longest list of upcoming executions in the nation. A second attempt to take Campbell’s life is now set for 2019, while Rommell Broom’s new date is in 2020. Last year, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Ohio could attempt to execute Broom, yet again, over a powerful dissent pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court more than a century ago made clear that executions involving “torture or lingering death” would violate the Eighth Amendment. With its record of three botched executions and two bungled attempts, it’s time for Ohio to stop its unjust assembly line of death. It should reconsider whether it needs to execute prisoner[...]

Federal Prison Illegally Bans Christian Head Scarves for Visitors Like Me

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 11:15 -0500

Yes, some Christian women cover their heads for religious reasons. No, you can’t discriminate against them for it.

See that woman in the photo to the right?

That’s me, Audra Ragland, wearing one of my many head coverings. As a Christian, I’ve come to believe that Scripture requires me to cover my head in public to show my submission to, and reverence for, God. I wear my head covering everywhere.

Last year, however, when I tried to visit my brother in the United States Penitentiary Atlanta, a prison officer demanded I remove my headscarf before entering the visitation area. According to the officer, the headscarf would have been allowed if I were Muslim or Jewish but, he claimed, the prison did not recognize “Christian head covering.”

That was wrong, and yesterday the ACLU of Georgia and the ACLU sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons demanding that they end this discriminatory practice.

Needless to say, I was astonished when the officer told me that my religious practice was not recognized. While not as common in the United States, many Christian women around the world cover their heads for religious reasons. I find my inspiration in 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul speaks of the importance of a woman covering her head. I offered to get my Bible and show the officer the basis for my belief, but he was adamant: I could only wear my headscarf into the visiting area if I were Jewish or Muslim.

I felt devastated and torn. I had traveled nearly 150 miles to visit my brother, but I was worried that God would take the removal of my head covering as a sign of disobedience. Knowing that it would be months before I would see my brother again, and knowing my decision to uncover or not would affect not only my visit but other family members with me as well, I ultimately felt like I had no choice but to remove my headscarf.

Walking through the visiting area with my head uncovered, past men I did not know, I felt humiliated and ashamed as I worried that I was dishonoring God. I decided at that point that I could not let this injustice and discrimination stand. Although I didn’t want to report the incident immediately, out of fear that my brother would be retaliated against, I resolved that I would make an effort to raise awareness of the Christian practice of head covering. So, after my brother’s recent release, I contacted the ACLU of Georgia to help me reach out to the prison. I knew that the ACLU has helped protect the religious-exercise rights of women of many faiths, including Christians, and was relieved to learn they would send a letter on my behalf.

As the letter explains, government officials shouldn’t serve as the arbiters of religious doctrine by determining which beliefs are “recognized” or which interpretation of Scripture is correct. And, under the First Amendment, the government should never favor or disfavor one faith over others. Forcing me to choose between my faith and visiting my family in prison was heartless — it was also illegal.

I hope that prison officials will recognize their mistake and stop applying their religious accommodation policies in a discriminatory manner. Women of all faiths should be allowed to cover their heads in accordance with their religious beliefs if they so choose, and no woman who visits a federal prison should be humiliated like I was.

ACLU Poll Finds Americans Reject Trump’s Tough-on-Crime Approach

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 13:45 -0500

A majority of Americans support criminal justice reform that reduces the prison population. In a rejection of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' tough-on-crime approach, a new ACLU poll finds that a large majority of Americans believe the criminal justice system is unjust and needs to be significantly reformed. Nine out of 10 Americans from across the political spectrum told our pollster that our criminal justice system needs fixing. This is an astounding number, but the results are even more impressive when you drill down into them. They show that criminal justice reform is a political issue the American people care about. Currently, the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. Our polling shows that Americans are uncomfortable with the land of the free putting so many of its people behind bars, particularly when two out of three respondents do not believe that the criminal justice system treats Black people fairly. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that the United States should reduce its prison population. This support remained strong across people with very different political beliefs. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans all agreed that we should reduce our prison population. But one of the most encouraging signs that Americans have had enough of mass incarceration is that 52 percent of Trump voters said it was important to reduce the size of the prison population. Most people polled also believed that mass incarceration wasn’t just a serious problem but counterproductive. Seventy-one percent of respondents agreed that “sending someone to prison for a long sentence increases the chances that he or she will commit another crime when they get out because prison doesn’t do a good job of rehabilitating problems like drug addiction and mental illness.” This includes 68 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Trump voters. Bleeding-heart liberals they are not. Americans also don’t want their prisons full of people with mental health disabilities. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that people with mental health disabilities belong in mental health programs instead of prison. Two in three Americans would be more likely to vote for candidates who supported reducing the prison population and using the savings to reinvest in drug treatment and mental health programs, including 65 percent of Trump voters. And 72 percent said that they would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports eliminating mandatory minimum laws. This is in direct contrast to the agenda pushed forward by President Trump and Attorney General Session, who have supported more mandatory minimums. The majority of Americans recognize racial bias in the criminal justice system. Fifty-five percent of Americans agree that racism in policing, prosecution, and sentencing are responsible for racial disparities in our nation’s prisons and jails. The poll also asked Americans about their views on how the criminal justice system should respond to offenses involving violence. Understanding what Americans think about violent crime is critical since to end mass incarceration we must transform the way our criminal justice system treats all people, including people convicted of offenses involving violence.Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that people who have committed crimes involving violence can turn their lives around. Sixty-one percent of Americans also believe that people who suffer from drug addiction and commit serious crimes don’t belong in prison but should be in rehabilitation programs where they can receive treatment. And nearly nine out of 10 respondents believe that when people with mental health disabilities commit crimes that involve violence they should be sent to mental health programs where they can receive treatment from profes[...]

Racist Sheriffs Are Reapplying to Be Part of Trump’s Deportation Force

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:30 -0500

Law enforcement entities with troubling civil rights records are under consideration for the 287(g) program. The federal program that delegates immigration enforcement duties to local police is about to expand to as many as 24 additional jurisdictions across the country. The program, known as 287(g), deputizes state and local police to carry out federal immigration enforcement orders. After several years of decline, these arrangements are growing again under the Trump Administration. Sixty jurisdictions in 18 states have existing agreements under 287(g). This week Immigration and Customs Enforcement began the process of reviewing applications for 24 more jurisdictions, most of which have troubling civil rights records. One of the jurisdictions that submitted an application is Alamance County in North Carolina. In 2012, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson. Following a two-year investigation and interviews with more than 100 witnesses, the department found widespread evidence that the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office was systematically and unlawfully targeting Latino residents for investigation, traffic stops, arrests, seizures, and other enforcement actions. An expert’s statistical analysis found in Alamance County some of the highest rates of racial profiling ever documented in the United States. The expert, whose work was commissioned by the Justice Department, found that along three major Alamance County highways, Johnson’s deputies were up to 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than similarly situated non-Latino drivers. Witnesses testified about numerous incidents in which Johnson and other sheriff’s office employees used racial epithets and expressed extreme prejudice toward Latino residents. For instance, Johnson allegedly ordered deputies to “bring me some Mexicans,” “put heat on” predominantly Latino neighborhoods, and “go out there and get me some of those taco eaters.” Deputies were accused of sharing links to what the Associated Press described as “a bloody video game where players shoot people entering the country illegally, including children and pregnant women.” Perhaps what was most disturbing was that until the federal government announced the findings of its investigation in 2012, Sheriff Johnson’s office was among six counties in North Carolina receiving funds through the federal 287(g) program. Under that agreement, Johnson’s deputies were empowered to arrest and detain people suspected of immigration violations and hold them in custody for potential deportation. Witnesses reported times when Johnson told subordinates, “if you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him.” Under the law, police cannot question and arrest someone based on the way they look or their background. We live in a country in which the Constitution guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment under the law regardless of their skin color or accent. Discriminatory profiling does not make us safer. It is illegal and erodes trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect. After the department’s egregious civil rights abuses were exposed, the federal government terminated its 287(g) agreement with Alamance County in 2012, and the sheriff’s office was stripped of its authority to investigate potential immigration violations by individuals detained in the county jail. Despite a mountain of evidence about the department’s discriminatory practices, in 2015 a federal judge ultimately dismissed the case against Sheriff Johnson but still admonished his office for some of its behavior, including the frequent use of anti-immigrant epithets and slurs during official department business. The sheriff’s office later signed a settlement agreement with the Justice Department to mandate better training[...]

Georgia Is Fighting to Keep Its Laws Secret — Unless You Pay

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 10:15 -0500

Georgia sued a non-profit for publishing the state's law online. But knowing the law is a right, not a privilege.

For more than three decades, the state of Georgia has charged anyone who wants to see its official state law hundreds of dollars for that privilege. Now the state is suing the non-profit website that purchased a copy of that official compilation and put it on the internet for the public to see.

The problem with all of this? Knowing the law is a right, not a privilege.

We are in court today to argue that a state cannot put a copyright paywall between you and the law that governs you. Georgia takes the troubling position that it can claim a private property right in its entire legal code. The state concedes that it cannot claim a copyright in its statutory language or the text of court opinions. But it somehow believes that because the “Official Code of Georgia Annotated” — which it considers its official law — combines those two sources of public law, it can copyright the result and charge the public a hefty price to see it.

In 2013, a nonprofit called Public Resource paid for the OCGA and posted it online to make Georgia’s state law freely available to the public. In response, the state sued Public Resource. The ACLU, along with a number of other groups, filed an amicus brief in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals defending the public’s right to access its own laws.

The OCGA is the law that the Georgia Legislature editorially controls and publishes. It is the law that the state’s executive agencies enforce. And it is the official state law that courts apply and interpret. Most fundamentally, it is the law that an individual must read to know what behavior is legal and what isn’t. While an unannotated version of the code is available online for free, that version does not constitute the law as enforced today. For example, a person reading the free version might believe that an “offense of sodomy” is punishable by one to 20 years in prison. That individual would also be led to believe that private possession of pornography is illegal. Only by paying more than $400 would she learn that courts have held both of those statutes to be unconstitutional, and the state enforces neither.

In our view, Georgia’s attempt to profit by limiting public access to the law harms at least three fundamental constitutional principles. First, it ignores the public’s role as the true author of the law. Second, without free access to the law, you lack the ability to figure out what is legal and what isn’t. Finally, you have a fundamental First Amendment right to see what your government is up to.

Georgia asserts that such knowledge is a privilege for which people should pay. We believe it is a constitutional right. We hope the court agrees.

North Carolina Is Trying to Destroy the State’s Only Farmworkers Union. We’re Suing.

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 10:00 -0500

North Carolina passed a law making it all but impossible for the state’s only farmworkers union to operate effectively. Dolores Huerta, the legendary civil rights icon and farmworker activist, had it right: “Organized labor is a necessary part of democracy.” Day in and day out, unions struggle to make sure that farmworkers have a voice in in their workplace and in their communities, but they face enormous obstacles. Farmworkers, most of whom are people of color and many of whom are in this country on temporary visas, have long been excluded from federal and state labor laws. That means they don’t enjoy many of the key protections under the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and numerous state minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and youth employment laws. As a result, they face high risks to their health and safety, substandard living conditions, and abuse and exploitation by their employers. Now North Carolina has mounted a direct assault on the state’s only farmworkers union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which works tirelessly to protect those workers. A new state law, sponsored and supported by legislators who have a financial interest in suppressing farmworker organizing, would make it all but impossible for the union to operate effectively in the state. Together with a coalition of civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the North Carolina Justice Center, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the law violates farmworkers’ constitutional and civil rights. We have also asked the court for a preliminary injunction, which would suspend the law’s operation during the course of the litigation. The lawsuit challenges the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017, which attacks FLOC in two different ways. First, the law invalidates contracts guaranteeing that employers will honor their employees’ requests to deduct union dues from their paychecks, otherwise known as union dues checkoffs. Farmworkers, many of whom lack access to basic banking services, rely on these checkoffs to make timely and regular contributions to the union. Without checkoffs, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the union to collect the money it needs to operate. Second, the law invalidates settlement agreements negotiated by the union to advance farmworkers’ rights, fatally undermining lawsuits meant to improve the working conditions of farmworkers throughout North Carolina. North Carolina’s law clearly violates farmworkers’ First Amendment rights to association and expression. As the Supreme Court has long recognized, “The practice of persons sharing common views banding together to achieve a common end is deeply embedded in the American political process.” That’s why the First Amendment prohibits the government from adopting measures that are directly intended to burden expressive associations like labor unions. Thus, for example, the Supreme Court rejected state government attempts to attack the NAACP by forcing the organization to disclose its membership lists and preventing it from assisting in litigation. As the court recognized, groups like FLOC and the NAACP serve to empower marginalized voices. If the government is allowed to destroy these groups, those voices will be effectively silenced. North Carolina’s law also violates other important constitutional and statutory civil rights protections, including the Equal Protection Clause. By targeting FLOC alone, the law intentionally discriminates against the state’s farmworkers, a group largely composed of noncitizen migrant workers from Mexico. It’s worth mentioning that the law was sponsored by state Sen. Brent Jackson, the owner of Jackson Farming Company, which was recently sued by Latino farmworkers with FLOC’s assistance. State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, the only le[...]

An Arkansas Town Agrees to Criminal Justice Reform to Ensure That the Poor Are Not Jailed

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 17:15 -0500

The city of Sherwood agrees to stop jailing people for debts they are too poor to pay. For years, the city of Sherwood, Arkansas, home to about 30,000 people, had a practice of jailing people who could not afford to pay court costs incurred from bounced checks. Thousands of Arkansans were locked up—sometimes after bouncing checks in small amounts—when they could not pay crushing fees, fines, and other costs that compounded their debt by as much as 10 times the original amount. Today, thanks to litigation brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Sherwood has agreed to stop jailing people for being poor. Under this week’s settlement, the city agreed that it will not jail or issue arrest warrants for people because they can’t afford to pay their debts. Sherwood also agreed to clearly advise defendants of their rights before sentencing, ensure that defendants have access to counsel, and offer community service and other alternatives in lieu of court fines. This is what criminal justice reform looks like. Before this settlement, bouncing a check could have resulted in an arrest warrant, loss of driver’s license, levying of excessive fines, and even a jail sentence. One defendant was arrested at least seven times, spent 25 days in jail, and was assessed $2,700 in court costs for bouncing a single $29 check. Another wrote 11 checks totaling about $200, and was arrested seven times, spent weeks in jail, and was assessed thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees. The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution prohibit the state from punishing someone just because they’re poor. These fundamental constitutional rights ensure that even if you are sentenced to pay a fine, you cannot then be re-arrested and sent to jail because of your inability to pay that fine. Though this settlement marks a victory, Sherwood is one city. Vulnerable people in the state and across the nation are still being trapped in a never-ending cycle of escalating debt and incarceration — with devastating human costs. In too many communities, politicians and courts have created and are still carrying out one set of rules for those who are well-off, and another more punitive set of rules for those who aren’t. Other Arkansas courts should take notice of these long-overdue reforms in Sherwood. As illogical as it sounds, courts routinely suspend the drivers’ licenses of those who are too poor to pay their fines and fees on time, typically with no notice or opportunity to be heard. It’s illogical because, without a drivers’ license, people lose their jobs and income – making it even harder to pay what they owe. Many Arkansans have no other means of transportation for taking their children to school or to the doctor’s office, or getting to the job that buys the groceries; suspending their drivers’ licenses channels these people toward the necessity of committing the crime of driving without a license, yet another crime for which the court could fine or jail them. These policies that punish the poor have created staggering racial disparities and fueled a mass incarceration crisis that has cost billions of dollars and failed to make anyone safer. Arkansas public officials should reflect on the Constitution they have sworn to uphold and the rights it guarantees to every Arkansan, and carry out their duties accordingly. The right to a fair trial, due process, and equal protection under the law are not luxuries for the privileged few. They are freedoms afforded to all of us. There has been progress in Sherwood, and the rest of the state of Arkansas should take note and follow to protect the rights of all.[...]