ALEC and Private Prison Lobbying Exposed

By Frank Knaack (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Earlier this year, The Nation and The Center for Media and Democracy released ALEC Exposed.  ALEC Exposed brought to light the actions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that unites corporations with state legislators to “discuss” public policy and draft model legislation.  One of the most concerning areas of this public/private partnership is in the realm of criminal justice and prisons.  In fact, criminal injustice may be a more appropriate phrase.  Thanks to ALEC, the for-profit prison industry has a lot to be thankful for during this holiday season.

As The Nation reported, “ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, ‘three strikes’ laws, and ‘truth in sentencing’ laws.”  According to the proponents, these laws are designed to reduce crime.  In reality, as California saw first hand, instead of reducing recidivism these laws lead to severe overcrowding.  In the end, public safety is undermined (at the expense of taxpayers) while the for-profit prison industry makes out like a bandit.  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  NPR reported last year that through its membership in ALEC, CCA was actually able to help draft model anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona’s noxious SB 1070.

Unfortunately, the negative influence of the for-profit prison industry is not limited to ALEC.  As the ACLU reported, CCA and The Geo Group, Inc. have engaged in a multi-state lobbying effort to fight smart on crime reforms.  These two corporations hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011.  Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level.  To understand their need for this army of lobbyists you do not need to read any further than Geo’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings (CCA’s is similar):

“Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

The U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and the private prison industry clearly wants to make sure it stays that way. While taxpayer and civil rights advocates have been working to reform archaic and ineffective criminal justice laws, working to ensure that our laws reflect current research on effective ways to reduce crime and protect human rights, for-profit prison corporations are headed in the opposite direction.  To these corporations, societal impact and public safety don’t matter.  The only thing that is relevant is maximizing the bottom line.


How We Celebrate the Season: Merry Christmas from the ACLU of Texas!

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

Although you may have heard that the ACLU of Texas is anti-religion or anti-Christian, the truth is quite the opposite.  The ACLU and the ACLU of Texas have long defended the rights of all of us to practice our religion freely, regardless of any particular religious affiliation, without government interference.

Religion plays a prominent role in American public life. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and cathedrals are plainly visible in the public sphere and their right to display religious symbols and to construct religious edifices is protected by the Constitution and by statutes.  We have supported the right of people to preach their religion in public places and to go door-to-door to spread their religious messages. The Constitution properly protects the right of religious figures to preach their messages over the public airwaves. Religious books, magazines, and newspapers are freely published and delivered through the U.S. Postal System. Even in our public schools, students’ right to pray and talk about their faith is protected.  No other industrialized democracy has as much religion in the public square as does the United States.

This religious freedom is a fundamental human right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses.  The First Amendment of the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  It encompasses not only the right to believe (or not to believe), but also the right to express and to manifest religious beliefs. These rights should not be subject to the political process and majority votes.

The Constitution does not endorse any religious creed, and it does not give government the right to decide theological questions. Beliefs about the nature of God are a proper subject for individuals, families, religious communities, and theologians, but not for government bodies such as the U.S. Congress or a local school board.  The government has no business telling any American what to believe in religious matters or deciding which side to support – symbolically or financially – in religious questions.  We should constantly remind ourselves that religion is a fundamental right that needs to be protected.

Hopefully, now that you know the facts about the ACLU of Texas and Christmas, you can avoid bearing false witness and (should you so desire) be empowered to set the record straight.  Merry Christmas from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas!

Share this holiday greeting card from the ACLU with friends and family.

Two steps forward, but still a long way to go: Putting an end to the death penalty in Texas

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

For those of us against the death penalty, there is a lot of promising news in the new report published by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP).

  • Death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 70% since 2003;
  • In 2011 Texas courts sentenced the lowest number of people to death (8) since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976; and
  • In 2011 Texas executed the lowest number of people (13) since 1996.

While one execution is too many, the declining death sentences and executions are a step in the right direction.  But, we are under no illusion that the end of this inhumane practice is right around the corner.  The report reminds us that Texas still accounted for 30% of U.S. executions in 2011, and Gov. Perry is responsible for more executions than any other governor in  U.S. history.  Our state still has 304 inmates on death row, and after California and Florida, we have the third-highest death row population in the nation.  We also lead the nation in the number of executions carried out.  Furthermore, the use of the death penalty is still tinged with racism (including in Harris County), is applied arbitrarily, continues to be vulnerable to irreversible wrongful convictions, and is both morally and economically costly to society.

Interestingly, most Texas counties do not sentence people to death.  In fact, since 2007, only 9% of Texas’ 254 counties have imposed the death sentence.  To see which counties are the worst,  check out TCADP’s map.  Even though most counties don’t use the death penalty, the few that do bring our entire state out of step with basic human rights.  It is time to show the world that we are ready to move away from this barbaric and unconstitutional practice.

Help groups like TCADP and the ACLU of Texas fight for the abolition of the death penalty in Texas.  Click here to send a letter to your legislator.  Even though we are between legislative sessions, offices are staffed, and it is still their job to listen to constituents.  Let them know you are out there, paying attention, and demanding change!

How We Celebrate the Season: Christmas in the Public Square

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

We get a lot of questions and complaints this time of year about religious holiday displays.  So we thought we’d take this opportunity to set the record straight.

The First Amendment guarantees individuals, families, businesses, and religious communities the right to display Christmas symbols. This right is well established and is exercised annually by private individuals and entities across the country. The difficulty comes when the government decides that it wants to get involved in promoting some religious symbols or prohibiting others.

The existing guidelines are actually pretty simple.  First, public Christmas displays (including nativity scenes) erected and paid for by individuals, religious organizations or other nongovernmental groups are perfectly acceptable at homes and churches. This religious expression is a valued and protected part of the First Amendment rights guaranteed to all citizens.

Second, government-sponsored religious displays, including those at courthouses, town halls and other governmental properties are not okay, except in certain specific instances (such as being one element of a larger, seasonal holiday display that includes other religions.)  These displays wrongly presume that government should make judgments about religion.  Governments should not be in the business of endorsing religious displays. Religion does best when government stays out of the business of deciding which holidays and religions to promote. Religion belongs where it prospers best: with individuals, families and religious communities.

See, I told you it was simple!

For interesting blogs on the ACLU’s 12 days of Religious Liberty, follow the ACLU of Texas on twitter!

One more nail in the ‘Secure Communities’ coffin

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

The New York Times published an article today that explored yet another reason why the misnamed Secure Communities program is a bad idea – it has led to a number of American Citizens being detained and, in some cases, deported. The faulty Homeland Security database has somehow misidentified these U.S. citizens as being undocumented immigrants.  I guess in Texas, the proper response is … oops.

For example, between 2006-2008, in just two immigration detention centers in Arizona, 82 people were wrongly held, some for periods up to a year, before an immigration judge determined they were U.S. Citizens. That’s in the so-called Land of the Free?   The ACLU of Texas has long argued that a major problem with local police getting involved in monitoring immigration status is that it is discriminatory – people are often assumed to be an undocumented immigrant based solely on the color of their skin or the language they speak.  If, by some mistake, a person’s name is in the homeland security database (which does happen), he or she will be wrongly accused of being in this country without permission.  In Texas, with almost 38% of the population being from Hispanic or Latino origin, there is major concern about discrimination and abuse.

These incidences should cause local law enforcement to think twice about honoring federal immigration holds.  As acknowledged by John Morton, director of ICE, ICE has no authority to detain American citizens.  Additionally, ICE has stated that it will not recompense local law enforcement for costs associated with extended detention and it will not indemnify for any litigation that local law enforcement may be subject to due to an unlawful detention.

A low but persistent percentage of the nearly 400,000 people held for deportation each year are U.S. citizens.  This is unacceptable and is just another example of our freedom being slowly chipped away at in the name of so-called security.  And, it’s just another reason why the Secure Communities Program makes our communities anything but secure.

Our most fundamental right is in jeopardy

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

The day I cast my first vote, admittedly for losing candidates, I walked a little taller because I was certain that day I had become an adult.  To this day, my family may have to miss spending Thanksgiving together, but we always get together in person or, now, virtually, on Election Day. Simply put, for me, there is just no constitutional right more important than the right to vote. Without it, our Constitution is not worth the paper it is printed on.

That’s why I’m so excited to have been invited to hear Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Tuesday night at the LBJ Auditorium in Austin. The late president’s family will be there to hear General Holder talk about the importance of voting rights and Lyndon Johnson’s heroic leadership in getting the law enacted.

The Attorney General is expected to reiterate the importance of respecting and ensuring the voting rights of all Americans. In Texas, this means, fighting back against those who would shrink our democracy by restricting the right to vote.

We await a decision from the Department of Justice about the legality of Texas’ new Voter ID law under the Voting Rights Act. I trust that the justice department sees clearly the motives of those who would deny large groups of Texans their right to vote.  It would be funny if it weren’t so awful: our state ranks among the lowest (45th in 2008) in the nation in voter turnout. We ought to be thinking of ways to promote and ensure the right to vote; instead we are shamefully making it more difficult for people to exercise their constitutional right.  As I told the Texas Senate in January, this law is a solution in search of a problem. There is NO evidence of in-person voter fraud in Texas.

Our new Voter ID law, like efforts in at least six other states, is designed to keep people of color and those in lower income groups away from the polls.  Here’s why: it would require a registered voter who previously only had to present her voter registration card to now show a Texas drivers’ license, a Texas state ID card, a concealed handgun carry license, a U.S. military card or a U.S. passport.  Unable to show any of these, she may cast a provisional ballot, which will only be counted if she comes forward with the required ID within 6 days. (Small comfort, as our state has one of the lowest rates of cleared provisional ballots in the country. About eighty percent were rejected in 2008.)

If this law is allowed to stand, our state will have serious problems.  An expert on census and voting reviewed three demographic studies and concluded that hundreds of thousands of minority voters do not have the required identification. Nor will it be easy for them to get the IDs required to vote. Almost half of Texas’ 254 counties have drivers’ license offices with reduced hours or no motor vehicle office at all.

A person who lives in, let’s say, the Big Bend area of Texas where her county has no motor vehicles office, faces potentially insurmountable hurdles. First, she has to have a birth certificate ($22) or a marriage license ($71) if there has been a name change or a passport ($110) to get the state-issued ID.  Then, there is the cost of the trip to the drivers’ license office; in the case of the Big Bend resident, it’s about an hour and half to the nearest office in Alpine.  With gas prices so high, she could spend up to $85 for the roundtrip. And remember, our potential voter doesn’t drive: she has to find a friend or relative who does have a drivers’ license. And then there are the costs of lost wages. It’s like that advertisement says: The Cost of the Right to Vote in Texas? priceless.

Under this law Texans — particularly those who are elderly or have disabilities or are students or are voters of color or are low-income — will have their cherished constitutional right to vote restricted. That’s wrong, and we hope Attorney General Holder will put a stop to it.

Click on our voting rights action alert, and urge the Department of Justice to exercise its authority under the Voting Rights act and block this suppression measure.

Human Rights and Private Prisons – They Don’t Mix

By Frank Knaack (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Today is International Human Rights Day.  A day when people from across the world come together to reaffirm the basic rights that all people are entitled to, regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  On December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.  The United States played a key role in securing the adoption of the UDHR.  The UDHR has since become the foundation of the modern UN human rights system, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “the international Magna Carta.”
While December 10th is a day for celebration, a day where we look back on the progress we have made, it is also a day for action, a day to speak out against the injustices and depravations of basic human dignity that still occur on a daily basis.  In Texas, we need not look far to see that our state and our nation have too often failed to uphold these basic rights.  The numerous immigration detention facilities in Texas provide a clear case in point.
As frequent Texas Prison Bid’ness readers no doubt know, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locks up approximately 400,000 each year at a cost of $1.9 billion.  To accomplish this horrendous feat, ICE contracts many of these detainees out to the for profit private prison industry, including to a number of private facilities in Texas.  The result: a massive transfer of public funds to private corporations that wastes scarce tax dollars and results in the depravation of basic human rights.  Just last week, ICE transferred immigrant women out of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, a private jail operated by Community Education Centers, a for-profit private prison corporation after reports from inside the facility alleged a lack of access to medical care, including for pregnant women; spoiled food; no contact visits; and virtually non-existent access to attorneys.  Allegations such as these do not signal the existence of a few bad apples, rather they clarify the structural flaw in the private prison model: the legal obligation to both ensure basic human dignity and maximize shareholder profit.  These obligations are mutually exclusive.   
Want to do something to stop this abuse?  Join the Waco Dream Act Alliance, Hope Fellowship Church, Texans United for Families, Grassroots Leadership, and those affected by the immigrant detention system at a vigil in Waco for detained immigrants on International Human Rights Day (Saturday, 12/10).  The vigil will begin at 2pm at Heritage Park at Third and Austin and will highlight the more than 10,000 immigrant detention beds (and the humans suffering in them) in Texas.

Cost Savings Can Also Improve the Future of Youth Offenders

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Largely driven by cost savings, since 2007 there have been some changes in the way that Texas deals with its most vulnerable group of offenders: our youth.    From 2006 to 2010 the number of incarcerated youth in Texas dropped from 4,800 to 1,800 – all without an increase in crime. Juvenile arrests have decreased too, and mental health services have become more available to young offenders.

The most recent change, again, with the focus on saving taxpayer money, is that the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission are merging into one new agency that will be tasked with continuing the reforms that were started in 2007.  We hope that the new agency will take seriously the fact that youth that remain near family networks have an easier time rehabilitating, and that the agency acknowledges that very few youth should ever actually end up behind bars.  We agree with Senator Whitmire’s suggestion that those youth that are locked up are not sent hours away, but are instead put in facilities close to their homes so they don’t lose connections with their families and communities.  Additionally, youth, like offenders of all ages, are often in need of mental health and substance counseling.  We hope this priority is at the top of the list. While we recognize that one of the main purposed for this merger is to save taxpayer money (another reason we advocate for less-expensive alternatives to incarceration such as probation), we echo the sentiment of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition – there must be adequate funding to ensure secure facilities and top-notch treatment centers so that these young offenders are given a chance to get back on the right track.   It is worth noting, this investment in treatment for youthful offenders will pay-off in years to come because this kind of treatment is designed to route youth out of the criminal justice system permanently.

We have long argued that throwing a young person in jail is not the correct answer. The numbers show that keeping kids out of jail gives them a much better chance at a productive future – and furthermore, incarcerating youth is expensive – up to 6 times more expensive than incarcerating an adult.  Rehabilitating youth is easier than rehabilitating adult offenders, and will help keep future adults out of the criminal justice system as well, thus saving the state more money.  We have better ways to spend our tax dollars, and youth have more potential to have bright and productive futures if they never see the inside of a jail cell.

How We Celebrate the Season: The AC in ACLU-TX Does Not Stand for ‘Anti-Christian’

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

Every year around this time, we, at the ACLU of Texas, get messages asking why we oppose Christianity.  Because the ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding religion, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that we do not zealously defend the rights of all religious believers to practice their faith.  But the truth is we’ve done an awful lot of work on behalf of self-identified Christians.

In 2010, we joined with the national ACLU to file a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Texas prisoner who sued after prison officials denied him the opportunity to participate in Christian worship services.

We also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a Christian pastor and his faith-based rehabilitation facility in Sinton, Texas. The ACLU of Texas urged the court to reverse a decision that had prohibited the pastor from operating his rehabilitation program near his church and also had sharply limited the reach of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA). In June 2009, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with us and ruled in favor of the pastor.

My personal favorite happened just this year.  In April, we filed an amicus brief in support of students in the Plano school district who wanted to include pencils with religious messages (like ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’) in holiday gift bags.

So remember, when we say we’re fighting for your religious freedom, we really mean it!  We are defending the rights of all Texans to practice their faiths freely and pushing back against government intrusion into matters of faith. Up next we’ll clarify some of the rules surrounding Christmas displays in the public square.

Smart-on-crime: Keep non-violent drug offenders out of jail

By Terri Burke

According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston police miss the good ole days when they could slap a felony charge and lock people away for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine.  The vice president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization actually advocates throwing drug users behind bars for trace possession because “they” are the type of individuals who commit burglary and robbery. I didn’t realize Minority Report was about Houston.  I must have missed the part of the Constitution that permits police to arrest and jail individuals for crimes they have not yet committed.

HPD’s ire centers around a decision made by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos in January, 2010 when she decided the county would stop prosecuting trace drug crimes as felonies. The ACLU of Texas applauds her smart-on-crime decision, and hopes she sticks to her principles.

Why is this issue so important to Texas?

–          Cost: The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council estimates that since this policy has been implemented, there have been 400 fewer inmates in jail on any given day.   At a cost of between $45 and $65 per prisoner per day, this policy saves taxpayers between $6.5 and $9.4 million on an annual basis.  These resources would be better spent on efforts to decrease the occurrences of dangerous crimes that pose a threat to Texas, or to create more drug treatment centers that would help people get back on the right track.

–          Public health: To effectively end drug abuse, drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue instead of as a criminal issue. This is a simple fact. Treatment – not incarceration – lowers drug use.  In fact, states with higher rates of drug incarceration actually have higher rates of drug use. Without effective treatment, drug addicts, once released from jail, will likely end up back behind bars.

–          Institutional racism: On a national level, African Americans comprise 13 percent of the US population and 14 percent of drug users.  Yet, they make up 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes.  In Texas, 8 out of 9 regional narcotic task forces search African Americans for drugs more often than they search whites –no wonder this racial discrepancy exists.

–          Community: Most drug users and addicts are non-violent offenders. And they are real people, with real families and real jobs.    Sending a non-violent parent with a drug problem to jail instead of treatment is detrimental to the family and the community.  More than half the people in Texas prisons are parents and sending first-time and non-violent offenders to jail instead of treatment further harms their children.  Children who have a parent in prison are five times more likely to commit crimes themselves. Some of these children also end up in the foster care system – at an additional expense to the taxpayer.  In addition, people with felony convictions have a much harder time finding work after they have done their jail time, which leads to struggling families and economically depressed communities.  It is better for society as a whole to treat first time and non-violent offenders than to incarcerate them.

We couldn’t agree more with State District Judge Michael McSpadden, who advocates for more drug treatment options and giving drug addicts a second chance.  The war on drugs has been an expensive failure and it is past time to change gears.

Terri Burke is the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, headquartered in Houston.