Do you want to see an end to the death penalty? Join us!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

While death penalty supporters’ argument that the death penalty deters crime was long ago debunked, the reasons to stop using it are only getting stronger.  Here are just a few:

–          A non-perfect and irreversible system, it has taken innocent lives

–          People of color are disproportionally sentenced to death

–          The use of the death penalty does not make our communities safer, nor does it reduce murder rates

–          It is exorbitantly expensive

–          It is uncivilized and inhumane

–          141 countries no longer use the death penalty

–          In 2011, the US was the only member of the G-8 group of developed nations to use the death penalty (Texas was responsible for 30% of US executions in 2011)

The use of the death penalty in Texas, and the US, is on the decline. But, to finally rid our state and our nation of this practice, we need to come together as a community and raise our voices.  Join the ACLU of Texas and numerous other civil rights organizations at a community conference this Saturday, March 31, in Houston titled Civil Rights in the 21st Century: Uniting Communities for Justice. The death penalty will be just one of multiple civil rights issues that will be discussed.  We’d love to have you join us.

To learn more about the conference and find out how to register please visit

No Evidence of Voter Fraud at the Polls

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

The proponents of Texas’ discriminatory Voter ID law have done a good job making the public believe that Texas is rife with voter fraud at the polls.  There’s just one problem … they’re wrong.  Texas doesn’t have a voter fraud problem.  Just last weekend, the San Antonio Express and The Austin American Statesman did a good job at reminding us of this important detail.

The real abuse is not voter fraud at the polls; it is our state government’s attempts to suppress the fundamental voting rights of citizens of color in Texas.   The Department of Justice recently stated that Texas’ proposed voter ID law would disproportionately affect Hispanics – up to 600,000 eligible voters could be turned away at the polls.  Furthermore, as stated in the articles:

“Fewer than five ‘illegal voting’ complaints involving voter impersonation were filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office  from the 2008 and 2010 general elections in which more than 13 million voters participated (and)…the attorney general handled just 20 allegations of election law violations in the 2008 and 2010 elections.  Most involved mail-in ballot or campaign finance violations, electioneering too close to a polling place or a voter blocked by an election worker.”

Recognizing the discriminatory nature of this law as well as the lack of its necessity, some prominent lawmakers have been against voter ID from the start.  Senator Rodney Ellis said that there are more UFO and Bigfoot sightings than documented cases of voter impersonation and Representative Rafael Anchia from Dallas feels that those in favor of the law are conjuring up images of “busloads of illegal immigrants being transported up from Mexico to vote straight-ticket Democratic.”

The rhetoric, fear mongering, and storytelling has gone too far.  This law, if implemented, will prevent eligible Texans from voting both in rural counties and cities.  Texas already has one of the country’s lowest voter turnout rates (usually number 46 or 47).  Do we really want to end up at number 50?

School Discipline Policies Waste Money

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

The ACLU of Texas has long argued that Texas needs to change the way it disciplines school children.  Current discipline policies often push children out of school – into the school-to-prison pipeline – instead of creating positive learning environments to keep kids in school.  We don’t disagree that student misbehavior is a serious issue, but children should not be ticketed, sent to court and disciplinary programs, and blasted with fines for acting out.  Setting aside basic human rights concerns, the punitive approach simply does not work.  Once suspended or expelled from school, children are much more likely to end up dropping out of school and ending up in the juvenile justice system.  The next stop for many of them … prison.  And, children of color and special education students are disciplined at much higher rates than their peers.

If these reasons aren’t enough, these failed disciplinary policies are extremely expensive.  As Texas Appleseed recently noted, last year alone, Dallas spent more than $11 million on unfruitful discipline approaches while, at the same time, slashing overall spending to make up for state cuts to education aid.  It costs five times the amount ($57,000 a year) to send a student to an alternative school than to keep the child in a regular school.  This is unacceptable when campuses are closing and teachers are losing their jobs – especially when we know there are cheaper and more effective behavioral models such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) programs.  PBIS works to create a positive learning environment and proactively address student misbehavior.  PBIS is an evidence-based way to better ensure that children stay in school – where they belong.  Help us get PBIS into all Texas schools – get involved with our Youth Rights Campaign.  Together, we will make a difference in the lives of Texas’ children.

The US ranks #5 in global executions

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

According to Amnesty International, in 2011 the United States, once again, made it on the list of the top five executing countries…in the world.  We should be ashamed with the company we keep:  others on the list are China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. Our country is the only member of the G-8 group of developed nations to use the death penalty last year.  Shouldn’t that tell us something?  In large part, our country receives this ranking because of Texas.  In 2011 our state was responsible for 30% of all US executions.

The good news is that the tide is turning.  Both death sentences and executions are down – even in Texas.  For example, death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 70% since 2003, and 2011 was a historically low year for executions in Texas.   Richard Dieter with the Death Penalty Information Center says that by all measures, the death penalty is on the defensive. Let’s work to keep it that way.

To learn more about the death penalty in Texas, visit  Help us 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 an end to this inhumane practice!

The Constitution Prevails in Farmers Branch

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Last week, the 5th Circuit ruled that the city of Farmers Branch, outside of Dallas, violated the Constitution by passing a housing ordinance aimed at driving out Latinos.  The 5th Circuit concluded:

This country has a large Latino population and millions of Latinos live here without legal permission.  However, the great majority live quietly, raise families, obey the law daily, and do work for our country.  For all that they contribute to our welfare, they live in constant dread of being apprehended as illegal aliens and being evicted, perhaps having their families disrupted.  As unsatisfactory as this situation is it is the immigration scheme we have today. Any verbal and legal discrimination against these people, as Farmers Branch exemplifies by this ordinance, exacerbate the difficulty of that immigration scheme.  This is a national problem, needing a national solution.  And it impacts the nation’s relations with Mexico and other nations.  The Supreme Court long ago pointed out in Chy Lung the problem for this country of treating Chinese people poorly.   And as the Court said in Harisiades v. Shaughnessy, “any policy toward aliens is vitally and intricately interwoven with contemporaneous policies in regard to the conduct of foreign relations, the war power, and the maintenance of a republican form of government.”

Because the sole purpose and effect of this ordinance is to target the presence of illegal aliens within the City of Farmers Branch and to cause their removal, it contravenes the federal government’s exclusive authority over the regulation of immigration and the conditions of residence in this country, and it constitutes an obstacle to federal authority over immigration and the conduct of foreign affairs.  The ordinance is unconstitutional … .

Local governments throughout Texas should take note of this decision.  Not only did the Farmers Branch government spend millions of taxpayer dollars in a failed attempt to defend this ordinance, it also sought to undermine the founding document of our nation … the Constitution.

“Work It Out” With Your Rapist? No Way.

By Kirsten Bokenkamp – Originally posted on ACLU’s Blog of Rights
Senior Communications Strategist

Being a teenager isn’t easy. Kids can be hard on each other, and students must contend with the harsh realities of bullying, of lunch rooms fights, of students picking on one another, and of ending friendships over teenage love — all while trying to get an education to prepare them for adulthood, college and a career. Teachers and administrators are vested with the critical responsibility of creating and maintaining an environment where kids feel safe and supported so they can focus their attention on learning — the real mandate of public schools.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way, as one Texas student, called Faith (not her real name), found out last year, after she was raped, at school, by a fellow student. Faith took the brave step of reporting her rape to school officials only to be told to “work it out” with her rapist.

What?!? “Work it out”???

This is rape we are talking about — a violent and invasive act that often requires intensive rehabilitation for the victim. The student needed support and protection from the school officials to whom she reported the assault, and instead, received the opposite. They blew it off.

And it gets worse. The officials at her school ultimately charged her with sexual misconduct, and sent her to the same off-campus alternative school as her rapist, where she “had to not only face him, but the bullying of others because he bragged about it.”

We couldn’t sit back and watch. Many people often think of Title IX as a way to ensure there is no discrimination based on sex in school athletics, but the mandate of Title IX expands way beyond that limited scope. Last fall, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Texas filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of Faith. We asked the OCR to determine whether the district had violated its obligations under Title IX and requested that the OCR undertake a compliance review of the school district.

All students have the right to feel safe in school, and part of the job of school officials is to protect vulnerable students. ACLU attorneys, with cooperating counsel from Weil Gotshal and Manges LLP, were able to get Faith out of the disciplinary alternative education program she had been sent to with her attacker, and into another school district so she could complete her senior year in safety and graduate on time. Additionally, we sent letters to each of Texas’ more than 1,000 public school district superintendents to remind them of their obligations under Title IX, and to ask them to take a closer look at their policies to ensure that what happened to Faith will not happen to other students.

If you know of or have experienced a similar situation contact the ACLU, and if you want to find out what you can do to strengthen Title IX enforcement, visit our new Title IX page.

Over-incarceration – Help us End this Texas Tradition

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!  While this “tough on crime” rhetoric may sound good on the campaign trail, in reality it undermines public safety, wastes valuable tax dollars, and violates the basic human rights of countless Texans.  Here are just a few of the real world implications of our failed criminal justice system:

  • Between 1980 and 2004, Texas’ prison population increased by 566%; during the same time corrections spending increased by 1,600%.
  • In Texas, African Americans make up just 12% of the population, but account for 44% of the total prison and jail population.
  • Texas spends seven times more on incarceration than on higher education.
  • Non-violent and drug offenses account for 81% of all new inmates.
  • Texas’ imprisonment rate (691 per 100,000 residents) is three times higher than that of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • Of the roughly 170,000 people in Texas prisons, about 90,000, more than half, are classified as non-violent.
  • Cost to keep one person in prison per day in Texas: between $40-50.  Cost to keep one person on probation per day in Texas: $2
  • Incarceration doesn’t stop drug use. States with higher rates of incarceration for drug violations actually show higher, not lower, rates of drug use. That’s because incarceration without rehabilitation results in a revolving prison door. By contrast, rehabilitation returns a person to society able to function better than before and less likely to re-offend.
  • Texas spends $300 million a year to incarcerate non-violent drug users.
  • Evidence shows that all races use drugs at about the same rate, but Texas arrests and incarcerates a disproportionate number of people of color for drug possession. In Texas, African Americans are imprisoned five times more than whites, and Latinos at almost twice the rate of whites.

Tough on crime has failed, it is time for us to be smart on crime.  As we have discussed on this blog before, Texas has made great strides toward a smarter criminal justice system – but there is still a long way to go.

Join us, and numerous other human rights organizations and activists on March 31st for a community conference titled Civil Rights in the 21st Century: Uniting Communities for Justice.  We’ll discuss over-incarceration, and, more importantly, come together as a community to strategize and implement a plan to end this expensive, abusive, and dangerous practice.

To learn more about the conference and find out how to register please visit

Documented or Undocumented – Nobody Wins by Separating Families

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Felipe Montes, the father of three US citizen children, was deported to Mexico in 2010 (his crime, by the way, was driving with an expired license).  Upon his deportation, his children, all under the age of seven, were put into different foster families. Worse, he can’t claim them.

While Mr. Montes was in custody, ICE officials said they didn’t communicate with North Carolina’s Child Protective Services about Montes because it’s not their job to call child welfare officials every time a parent is detained. Because he was locked up and waiting to be deported, it wasn’t in Mr. Montes’ power to comply with the procedures of Child Protective Services.  The result?  Poof, he lost contact with his children. How is that for humanity?  It is also worth noting that it costs the state $20,000-30,000 annually to keep one child in foster care (times three in this case).

We recently wrote about this happening to families (5,100 US born children are likely to get lost in the system when their foreign born parents are detained and deported) and this story makes it all too real. This policy (or lack of one, really) harms our society on multiple levels.  How does separating children from their loving and supportive parents do anybody any good?  Once in their home country, some parents literally have no way of finding out where their children are. And, in some cases, when parents are back in their native countries, (child welfare agencies) are denying parents custody by arguing that, even parentless, children are better off in the US.  So much for parents’ rights.

How do we allow this to go on in our country?

ICE says that for parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether or not to relocate their children with them,” reiterating long-standing legal precedent on the rights of parents, regardless of their immigration status, but clearly that isn’t always the case.

So, when we talk about the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform, let’s all remember that it not just about undocumented versus documented … it is also about putting a stop to a system that separates children from their parents.

Do Pervasive Homophobic Remarks Like “That’s So Gay” Create a Hostile School Environment?

By Gislaine Williams
Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator

The White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools and Communities brought together educators, law enforcement, social service providers and community advocates to talk about the strategies being used to address violence and harassment against the LGBT community. Check out our live tweets during the event below.

Learn what you can do in Texas to protect students against discrimination and bullying at Follow @youthrightstx on Twitter.

@whitehouse #lgbt conference starting in Arlington with Fairness Fort Worth, UTA president and Guatam Raghavan of whitehouse.

#whlgbt DOJ community relations Services helps build relationships between community and law enforcement

US Attorney Saldaño asks community to report incidents, violence against lgbt community often a hidden crime #whlgbt

#whlgbt Rupert of natl lesbian rights: still many challenges to reporting, transgender sex workers are scared to report violence

Rupert of @nclrights can’t separate racial justice from lgbt rights #whlgbt

#whlgbt conference Safe Schools panel includes @glsen @thejusticedept @usedgov and human rights campaign

#whlgbt Kosciw from @glsen says hostile school environment created by pervasive homophobic remarks like “that’s so gay”

#whlgbt Yudin of @usedgov: 90% LGBT students verbally harassed

#whlgbt Cummings of civil rights division, US DoJ bullying occurs because of overall hostile climate. Need training for all school personell

#whlgbt Cummings of DOJ: Proper to response to harassment not always discipline. Promote education & training.

Looking forward to hearing Joel Burns, Eric Holder at #whlgbt conference.

Watch it Live! #WHLGBT Conference on safe schools and communities at @utarlington

Joel Burns shares personal experience with bullying. Celebrating 19th wedding anniversary with his husband today. #whlgbt

Valerie Jarrett, senior Obama advisor: schools have moral and legal obligation to protect students from harassment #whlgbt

Holder: schools failing to address bullying are ignoring civil rights protections #whlgbt

“We look forward to progress that we can and must achieve,” Holder at #whlgbt conference

Small group discussion: both adults & students need education about bullying & we need holistic approach like PBIS to end bullying #whlgbt

DeptofEd and DOJ recognize role of school-to-prison pipeline. “Discipline is just part of answer-goal is to stop harassment.” #whlgbt

Judy Shepard closes #whlgbt conference

Civil Rights Conference: The Constitution Protects All Texans

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

The fight for immigrants’ rights is one of this century’s great civil rights challenges.

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the authority to regulate immigration rests exclusively with the federal government and has prohibited state and local enforcement of federal immigration law without federal authorization. Moreover, local enforcement of immigration law often leads to racial profiling and drives a wedge between police and the communities they serve, making everyone less safe.

The United States should not be a country that arrests people without cause and detains them without access to counsel or family. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to thousands of immigrants caught up in raids, transferred into detention centers, and pressured into signing removal orders without being able to consult attorneys or family. Locking up people for years without hearings is illegal. The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to all people in this country, not just to U.S. citizens.

Join the ACLU of Texas and numerous other civil rights organizations at a community conference in Houston titled Civil Rights in the 21st Century: Uniting Communities for Justice.  This conference will provide an overview of issues relating to immigrants’ right and, more importantly, will unite our community.  Our goal is to use this conference as an opportunity to form a broad and diverse coalition of organizations and concerned community members dedicated to ensuring Constitutional protections for all Texans.  Join us!

To learn more about the conference and to find out how to register please visit