On Tuesday, the Senate Jurisprudence Committee will hear HB 62, a bill filed by Representative Ryan Guillen that proposes to limit investments by judges in private prison companies. The bill would prevent conflicts of interest similar to the dramatic incident in Pennsylvania in which a judge was found guilty for routing defendants through his court and into facilities in which he held a financial interest.
Clearly, Rep. Guillen wants to prevent judges from being unduly influenced by their investment in a private prison. The bill will also demand greater accountability and transparency among private prisons in general.
But this is just one small step toward what should be much larger scale reforms. Rep Guillen is familiar with the host of issues surrounding private prisons: He represents a district in South Texas that includes the privately-run, federal immigration detention facility Willacy Detention Center, located in Raymondville, TX.
Those issues include the following:
First, private prisons do not have the same obligations under the state’s Public Information Act as other state-run entities. Texas should clarify in law that private prisons (and really any entity that contracts with the state) have the same obligations to provide public access to records related to the expenditure of state money. Presently, private prisons can avoid full transparency.
Second, the process by which a private company is brought into a community should involve greater public input. The local community should have a say when a private prison comes to town—or when a company takes over a publicly run facility. Too often, decisions to privatize jails and prisons are made quickly and without public input. Requiring a public hearing is one way to fix this. In 2009, the ACLU of Texas and other advocacy organizations suggested as much in HB 3903; unfortunately, that bill didn’t pass, and the proposal has not progressed since.
Finally, HB 62 almost implicitly begs the question: Who else is receiving money from private prisons? HB 3903 (from 2009) and many other proposals have encouraged the state legislature to limit investments in and direct income from private prisons by and to individuals with potential conflicts of interest, e.g., county officials, sheriffs, and other community leaders, as well as policymakers who could similarly benefit from the privatization of prisons or jails.
Rep. Guillen has taken the lead, pushing this issue to the forefront in the Texas legislature. But we should view this bill as the first step—not the final reform—toward improving transparency and accountability for privately run prisons.
Senior Staff Attorney
The Austin Independent School District is moving forward on a plan dividing two low-performing middle schools into separate academies for boys and for girls.
While there are plenty of fine single-sex schools, research suggests they thrive because of parental choice and first-rate teaching. AISD’s plan for Pearce and Garcia middle schools promises neither.
In fact, when the district polled neighborhood parents, less than half backed dividing the students by gender. Even fewer parents were willing to send their kids to single-sex schools.
With good reason: there’s no evidence that allowing boys and girls to learn together played any role in these schools’ poor performance.
So what’s behind segregating boys and girls – and only in one, low-income community? We’re concerned that this plan is driven by outdated stereotypes and debunked claims about boys’ and girls’ brains. We also ask if a more affluent community would have been singled out for this scheme. That’s why ACLU Texas has filed a Public Information request to learn more about this plan. We need science, not stereotype, to fix our public schools.
Legal and Policy Director
Does Texas really need more pregnant teens? Two shameful new bills are engineered to guarantee that.
HB 1057 by State Representative Jeff Leach and SB 521 by State Sen Ken Paxton both heap budget-breaking burdens on public schools that are trying to give students quality sex education. Under these laws, schools would need written parent consent to offer sexual health education from any provider who is not a district employee.
Even worse: the bills outright forbid health professionals to teach sex ed if the educators have any link to health providers that include abortion services. That means that hundreds of districts that lack their own resources to provide their own sex ed would have to give up or whittle their programs.
And this is in the state with the fourth-highest rate of children giving birth to children.
How can Leach and Paxton justify this?
Easy: their bills exist only to bar Planned Parenthood from teaching students about sex and health. Attacking this effective, established provider of health care is priority #1 for these lawmakers. It’s more important to Leach and Paxton than preventing abortions, protecting young girls, and allowing our communities to decide for themselves how they want to inform children about health and sex.
Paxton and Leach are professional politicians. Planned Parenthood and public schools are professional educators. Leave our student’s health in the hands of those who care most.
Bill filing time is up at the Legislature, and it’s exposed an arsenal of bills aimed at women’s health. The main weapon: TRAPs, or Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers. It’s easy to spot these bills. They’re medically
unnecessary, and they single out abortion providers for intense, politically motivated regulations.
One TRAP bill would burden clinics with so many unneeded regulations that all but three or four clinics would likely close. The bill forces abortion clinics to meet higher, specialized regulatory standards designed for facilities that perform outpatient surgery. These regulations have little to do with abortion. Instead, they’re meant control surgery variables such as anesthesiologists, laboratories, and radiology procedures. Again, there’s no medical or legal reason to apply these standards to abortion clinics. But if this bill passes, it endangers thousands of Texas women by closing the very facilities that could offer them safe, regulated health services. SB 1198
Sen. Dan Patrick’s proposed restriction on medication-based abortion is one of the worst. Doctors know non-surgical abortions, which use medication in the first weeks of pregnancy, are safe and affordable. Yet Patrick wants to force unneeded repeat appointments, only with one physician, on any Texas woman prescribed a medication-based abortion. There’s no medical reason for this government intervention. Abortions are intensely regulated and among the safest medical procedures performed in the United States. But then, this bill isn’t about protecting women’s health. It’s about promoting Dan Patrick. SB 97
Then there are the politicians who want to meddle directly in families’ most private decisions. A proposed ban would outlaw abortion in almost every case after 20 weeks – in other words, before many women even know they are pregnant. That means a family with a tragic complication might not know about it in time to consult their doctor, or worse, be goaded into a hasty decision. The 20 week ban recklessly takes the most private health decisions from families and their doctors, handing it directly to Texas politicians. That’s not where our reproductive health decisions belong. SB 25
On Feb 10, 2013, we held a Symposium in Austin to find a cure to our state’s addiction to mass-incarceration. We learned from the best and most experienced: folks at the grassroots level, from the ACLU of Texas professionals who deal with the Texas Legislature every day and from an ACLU professional who has won victories in Florida, a state not unlike ours. Listen to what they think needs to happen in Texas.
Hope and Naz Mustakim | One Couple’s Battle Within a Broken Immigration System
Howard Simon | Using Electronic Communications to Enact Social Change
Panel Discussion| Key Policies to Focus on in 2013
ACLU of Texas | 75 years of protecting your liberty
Mass-incarceration is not the answer to all of our social problems like drug addiction or undocumented immigration, yet our country spends billions to lock people up instead of investing in real solutions. Want to help us end mass-incarceration in Texas? Be our eyes and ears in your part of the state when you join the Community Action Network. We need people like you to stand with us. Together we can make a difference.
The Dallas News today has coverage (“Texas civil liberties advocates seek limits on law enforcement tracking cell phones,” Jan. 10) of Grits’ efforts to seek legislation requiring a warrant for police to access cell-phone location data, a topic with which regular readers will be familiar. The article opens:
Smartphones and certain apps can help you find where your kid is hanging out, check on the whereabouts of an absent co-worker or spy on your spouse.
But the satellite navigation that allows for such tasks also helps police track a phone user’s exact location, and Texas civil liberties advocates say that kind of surveillance without court approval goes too far.
They want to update state law to require a court-ordered warrant for cellphone GPS tracking by law officers, with some exceptions. Police can currently track someone’s whereabouts by requesting cellphone company records, said Scott Henson, whose Austin-based gritsforbreakfast.org is influential among criminal-justice policy watchers.
“The law has not kept up with the technology,” said Henson, who is circulating proposed legislation to modernize the state Code of Criminal Procedure. No lawmaker has agreed to sponsor the measure yet, he said, but “folks really seem to intuitively understand that it’s a big deal.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and EFF-Austin, a “cyber liberties” organization, are also working on the effort, part of a national movement toward tightening up privacy for mobile device users.
Texas law officers currently have to get a court warrant for a wiretap, Henson said, and a court order is required before police can attach an electronic tracking device to someone’s vehicle. But he said the rise of smartphones equipped with GPS navigation means police can simply subpoena tracking records from cellphone companies, which received 1.3 million such requests in 2011.
Working with EFF-Austin, the ACLU (both state and national) and volunteers from among Grits readers, my wife and I put together a draft version of legislation we’d like to see filed and this week began making the rounds to seek out potential sponsors. Nobody has bitten yet, but I’ve been gratified at the reception in the Lege offices we’ve visited so far and suspect we’ll soon find someone to carry it.
The Dallas News story quoted a police union rep who seemed surprisingly sanguine, if grouchy, about the bill’s prospects:
While police respect privacy rights, law enforcement uses technology to combat crime, just as criminals use it for their purposes, said Charley Wilkison, public affairs director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.
“It’s a balance between the freedom of the individual … and the right of law enforcement to try to get at the bad actors,” he said.
Wilkison said accusations that GPS data is used broadly by police to spy on regular citizens are “a damn lie.” But he acknowledged that civil liberties advocates have a receptive audience among many lawmakers because of the “strong libertine, independent streak” in Texas.
To be clear, nobody said that “GPS data is used broadly by police to spy on regular citizens,” so that’s a red herring (Charley’s a master at concocting them). But it’s also true that, because requests by police for GPS data are sealed forever, nobody can know for sure what they’re doing with the information. Similarly, nobody is saying that law enforcement shouldn’t access GPS tracking data to fight crime, only that the tactic in most cases should require judicial oversight and, eventually, the public should get to know how those methods are being used.
That said, there is some evidence that requests for cell-phone location data are being used quite broadly by the feds, including in thousands of cases where charges are never filed, but nobody knows how frequently Texas agencies use the tactic. Federal Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith in Houston has pointed out that, when “Asked to furnish … cases brought against individuals who had been subject to warrantless cell phone tracking since 2001, the Department of Justice identified…about 38 cases a year. Given that the federal government obtains tens of thousands of these orders every year, this data suggests that the government is spending more time chasing the innocent than the black sheep and ne’er do wells.”
My guess would be that how and how often Texas law enforcement agencies access GPS tracking data varies widely. Some may misuse the privilege, while others may be more circumspect. If this bill passes, we’ll get to find out. However, we know for certain that any possible abuses can never be uncovered under the current system, where not just the public but even Texas judges can be kept in the dark when law enforcement accesses those records, which require only a subpoena to obtain.
Unreported in the Dallas News story, but importantly, the version of the bill we’re shopping includes exceptions to the warrant requirement during immediate, life-threatening emergencies and when the owner of an electronic device has reported it stolen. Also, to clarify, the bill includes not just smart phones but also regular cell phones (which are used by 88% of American adults) and other personal electronic devices that generate location data.
See a fact sheet regarding the proposed legislation that we’re distributing as we look for bill sponsors. If you’re a lege staffer and think your boss might be interested in carrying this bill, or if you live in Austin and are interested in volunteering for the effort, please shoot me an email.
Geoffrey A. Hoffman
Clinical Associate Professor, Director, University of Houston Immigration Clinic
Recently, CNN commentator and British citizen Piers Morgan has been the subject of a White House petition to deport him. The cascade of petitioners, now numbering more than 100,000, is troubling. A person’s exercise of free speech is not something that should lead to a threat of deportation. More than that, a non-citizen may not be deported based merely upon the desires of 10,000, 100,000, or even a million angry petitioners. Deportation may only be based on some valid, legal basis.
As a non-citizen lawfully present in the U.S., Mr. Morgan is entitled to due process, a point which may surprise many. Due process means he has to be served with notice in a particular way and be advised of the ground of removal. He is entitled to present evidence, witnesses in his defense, and argue for relief from removal if any exist.
What does calling for someone’s “deportation” – even a deportation with no valid basis- say about us as a nation? The First Amendment protects even probing foreign journalists and especially dissenters. Calling for one’s expulsion at a time of tragedy is one way to discipline those who profess unpopular ideas. Focusing on a non-citizen’s opinions in especially pernicious because it does two things: it seeks to expel the offending person’s views from the marketplace of ideas, but also, more importantly, shifts discussion away from the truly important issues underlying the tragedy in Connecticut: gun control. There is no valid ground for deportation which exists against Mr. Morgan. It is interesting that the voices which have now coalesced in support of his deportation have succumbed to a false assumption: that the federal government can be persuaded to exercise its extraordinary power to rid the polity of someone who has said something controversial or at odds with a special-interest group. This assumption is unsound.
The exercise of the federal deportation power which is the exclusive province of Congress and the executive branch in such a manner would be tantamount to unlawful and discriminatory “selective prosecution.” In a famous case, Reno v. AADC, 525 U.S. 471 (1999), the Supreme Court has stated that although there may be no Constitutional right to bring a selective prosecution case in the immigration context, the door was left open to such a claim where the basis for the alleged discrimination is “outrageous.” In this case, to enforce the immigration laws against Mr. Morgan for the exercise of his free speech rights would be “outrageous” in the way conceived of by Justice Scalia in his opinion in Reno v. AADC.
It concerns me deeply that as a polity we can envision the use of deportation in such a way with little analysis about the misuse of such power and no appreciation of the effects that such a proposed use would have on other parts of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment should not be trampled upon because the federal government has been imbued with other equally important powers, such as those over immigration and foreign affairs. To go down this road is dangerous and corrosive. While Mr. Morgan, a journalist and CNN celebrity, may not be fazed, all our rights are diminished if free speech can be subjected to the chilling effects of threatened deportation against those among us who espouse controversial or dissenting views.
By Gislaine Williams, ACLU of Texas Outreach Coordinator
The DPIC reports 43 total executions around the country in 2012, with 75% of them carried out in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mississippi. This constituted the second lowest number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Texas carried out 15 executions, the highest in the country. The executions included the controversial case of Marvin Wilson, who was declared intellectually disabled and executed despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that executing the mentally disabled is unconstitutional.
Six inmates received stays of execution. The executions were stopped pending review of DNA evidence, the mental competency of the inmates, and claims related to ineffective legal counsel. Three people received reduced sentences and were taken off death row.
The TCADP report found that the use of the death penalty is geographically isolated to only a few counties in the state. There were nine new death sentences this year, over half coming from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Texas jurors in 4 capital cases rejected the death penalty, choosing to sentence defendants to life without the possibility of parole.
TCADP also highlighted the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in Texas and the disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic defendants. Over the last five years, 75% of new death sentences have been given to people of color.
Read the full report: Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review
Since 1982, Texas has executed a total of 492 people – 253 of the executions were carried out under Governor Rick Perry. There are seven executions already scheduled for 2013, starting with the January 29th scheduled execution of Kimberly McCarthy.
Attend the ACLU of Texas Symposium & Lobby Day Feb 10th & 11th in Austin to call for changes in the Texas criminal justice system. Click here to sign-up.
Send a letter to the editor of your local community newspaper demanding for an end to the death penalty in Texas.
By Gislaine Williams, ACLU of Texas Outreach Coordinator
We are fast approaching the start of the 2013 Texas legislative session. Starting January 8 through the end of May, Texas lawmakers will meet in Austin for the 83rd Legislature. They will be proposing, debating, and passing laws that will impact all of us.
As Texans, we have the right and responsibility to be a part of this political process. You can make a difference by raising your voice to demand policies that will make a positive change in our communities. Learn how to become a grassroots activist at Community Watchdog TX.
The first step is to educate yourself. Become familiar with the major issues in Texas. Learn about the legislative process and get to know your representatives. Our toolkits provide you an overview of the critical issues facing our state:
- Criminal Justice TX: Learn about mass incarceration, the rise of for-profit prisons, and the death penalty.
- Educate, Don’t Incarcerate: An overview of school discipline policies pushing students out of school.
- Religious Freedom: A look at how our religious freedoms are threatened in Texas.
- Immigrants’ Rights: Find out how we’re working to reclaim the civil rights of all Texans, regardless of immigration status.
- Find out who your representatives are here.
- Learn how a bill becomes a law here.
Contact your legislator. There are a number of ways you can contact your representative about an issue. You can write a letter, telephone, or set-up a meeting in the local district office. Use our lobbying guides to learn how.
Ready to meet with your legislator? We can help you schedule and prepare for your local meeting. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Lobby with us in Austin! The ACLU of Texas will host our first ever Symposium & Lobby Day in Austin Feb. 10-11. On Feb. 10, you will hear from advocates and policy experts working on criminal justice and immigrants’ rights issues. The following day we will go to the state capitol to meet with representatives to talk to them about the major civil liberties issues in our state. Sign-up today to receive more information.
Stay involved. Join the Community Action Network to get updates on ways you can advocate for change this legislative session.