How’d This Conversation Get So Crazy?

Elizabeth, native born, was subjected to the kind of racial profiling – discrimination based on skin color or accent — that civil rights leaders predict will be widespread when law officers enforce the “show me your papers” law.

Watch the ugly situation that never should have gone beyond a difference in taste for regional cuisine.

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Stand with the ACLU of Texas: Racial profiling is un-American. It violates the Constitution and the principles America stands for. We will fight to prevent laws like Arizona’s from being passed in Texas. And we will respond when towns like Farmers Branch pass ordinances that discriminate. Celebrate freedom this Fourth of July by joining the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network (CAN) to help us hold the line against these bad laws in Texas.

The US Supreme Court Continues to Affirm Fair Sentencing for Youth

By Matthew Simpson
Policy Strategist

Today the Supreme Court issued an important decision on how youth can be sentenced.  Specifically, the court held that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment, as barred by the 8th Amendment.

In previous cases, the Supreme Court had barred capital punishment for juveniles and prohibited life without parole for non-homicide crimes.  Specifically, Roper v. Simmons held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children, and Graham v. Florida concluded that the Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense.

Today’s opinion, written by Justice Kagan, indicates two lines of legal reasoning that point to the unconstitutionality of life without parole for youth.

  • First, youth are viewed to be less culpable generally because of a “lack of maturity” and an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
  • Second, juvenile life without the chance of parole has been compared to the death penalty in previous opinions.  Because the Supreme Court previously determined the death penalty could not be applied to youth without violating the Constitution, any similar penalty would likewise be unconstitutional.

In Texas, juvenile life without the chance of parole was ended by a law passed in 2009. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) affirmed the practice, despite existing state law to the contrary, for youth sentenced to life without parole from 2005-2009.  We hope that today’s decision will influence CCA’s  future decisions on juvenile life without parole.

Overall, the Supreme Court has affirmed that youthful offenders are fundamentally different from adult offenders and criminal penalties for youthful offenders must take into account these differences.  This line of reasoning could potentially mean further reforms in the future.  For example, the court could consider the sentencing of the mentally ill with similar emphasis on the culpability of individuals with mental health issues.  Or, the Supreme Court could consider the use of solitary confinement on juveniles who have been shown to be more negatively impacted than adults by isolation.

The opinion today is a step toward fair sentencing.  Approaching justice with an individualized and outcome oriented approach allows policymakers to continue to develop criminal justice policy that makes us safer and encourages positive long term outcomes.  In Texas, ending juvenile life without parole was smart on crime and today the Supreme Court indicated we also have a constitutional duty to cease this sentencing practice.

The Horrors of Solitary Confinement: Words from Death Row Exonoree Anthony Graves

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Putting inmates in solitary confinement is exorbitantly expensive and it jeopardizes public safety. Beyond that, placing a human being in solitary confinement is inhumane.  But, don’t just take our word for it. Instead, you can hear it first hand from death row exonoree Anthony Graves. Mr. Graves was wrongfully convicted of murder and had been imprisoned for more than 18 years before he was exonerated. Last week was the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement and Graves bravely testified about his experience as a death row inmate in Texas.  Here are just a few things he had to say:

I lived under some of the worst conditions imaginable with the filth, the food, the total disrespect of human dignity. I lived under the rules of a system that is literally driving men out of their minds.

I had a steel toilet and sink that were connected together, and it was positioned in the sight of male and female officers. They would walk the runs and I would be in plain view while using the toilet.

The food lacks the proper nutrition, because it is either dehydrated when served to you or perhaps you’ll find things like rat feces or a small piece of broken glass.

There is no real medical care. After I was exonerated and able to go to a doctor, I was told that the food I had been eating caused me to have over 13 percent plaque in my veins, which can cause strokes, heart attacks, and aneurysms.

I was there when guys would attempt suicide by cutting themselves, trying to tie a sheet around their neck or overdosing on their medication. Then there were the guys that actually committed suicide

Solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a man’s will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He’s never the same person again. Then his mother comes to see her son sitting behind plexiglass, whom she hasn’t been able to touch in years, and she has to watch as her child deteriorates right in front of her eyes. This madness has a ripple effect. It doesn’t just affect the inmate; it also affects his family, his children, his siblings and most importantly his mother.

Somehow, someway, Anthony Graves was able to stay sane for all those years.  And, he finally got his life back after he was exonerated. He finally could reach out and give his mother a hug.  But, there are many others who continue to suffer under these horrific conditions day after day in Texas. Work with the ACLU of Texas towards putting an end to the unnecessary use of solitary confinement.  Join the Community Action Network today.

“The system is a mess”: The Not-So-Hidden Costs of Prison Privatization

By Ryan Meltzer
Summer Legal Intern

The truth about for-profit prison companies is once again in the limelight. Last weekend, the New York Times published an investigative piece about privately operated halfway houses in New Jersey. The three-part series, published under the main heading “Unlocked,” is the product of a 10-month investigation encompassing state and corporate financial records, reports of oversight and criminal investigations, and interviews with a wide range of actors in the system of private corrections, including corporate officers, lawmakers, former inmates, and guards.

Part 1 examines the connections between Community Education Centers (CEC), the company that runs many of the state’s halfway houses, and New Jersey lawmakers including Gov. Chris Christie. Part 2 focuses on a single troubled CEC facility where “one or two low-wage workers typically oversee each unit of 170 inmates” and robbery, sexual assault, and gang activity are so rampant that “inmates regularly ask to be returned to prison, where they feel safer.” Finally, Part 3 details a gruesome murder at another CEC facility made possible by largely unchecked gang activity, overwhelmed and inadequately trained staff, and a culture of fear and compliance among non-gang-affiliated inmates.

A common theme in all three articles is frustration of expectations: The reports reveal weak security in individual facilities (approximately 5,100 inmates have escaped since 2005) and lax oversight of the entire system, and challenge the oft-repeated assertion that prison privatization saves money for states and municipalities.

Although the focus of the Times series is on the New Jersey system, many of the issues it identifies are endemic to the private prison industry as a whole—an industry with deep roots in Texas. Moreover, CEC operates 17 facilities in Texas, many of which have been in the news for non-compliance with Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) regulations, as well as reports of guard corruption and the provision of subpar basic services to inmates. For instance, in March 2011, CEC’s Liberty County Jail failed its TCJS inspection based on violations including non-functional toilets, sinks, and lights in cells and common areas, and, critically, the failure of then-Warden Tim New to obtain a Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education (TCLEOSE) Jailer’s License—the basic state certification required for jailers. Several of CEC’s facilities have also been plagued by reports of contraband smuggling and bribery involving guards, and in December 2011, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pulled its immigration detainees from CEC’s Jack Harwell Detention Center, citing inadequate medical care, food, and access to legal assistance and worship services.

Private correctional facilities, as the Times article suggests, represent a false promise. Despite the private prison companies’ rhetoric about cost savings for municipalities and successful rehabilitation of offenders, corporations like CEC are nevertheless profit-driven enterprises. They lower costs by paying employees less than public prisons, and by cutting rehabilitative services for inmates. Worse, any revenue that private prisons purportedly save by charging lower per diem rates for prisoners is often outweighed by the myriad collateral costs highlighted by the Times—for instance, the costs of enlisting local law enforcement to track down escapees, investigate crimes, and suppress disturbances (ones organized in protest of subhuman conditions, no less). Most importantly, though, no dollar figure can be assigned to the social cost of contracting with corporations that profit from keeping ever-larger numbers of people behind bars, and maintaining the conditions under which a father incarcerated for traffic violations could be murdered in his bunk.

The Times article is a reminder of why for profit companies should not be tasked with ensuring our public safety.  Sign up for the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network to learn how you can help end prison privatization in Texas.

Juneteenth: Can we celebrate our way to racial justice?

Kate Vickery
Legislative Intern

I grew up in a small town in rural Michigan where Juneteenth was definitely not part of the summer celebrations. The historical impact of the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 was not deeply felt in my lily-white community, where the annual tractor parade often featured high school students driving heavy farming equipment bedecked with confederate flags.

In 2005, Michigan became the 18th state to officially declare the Juneteenth holiday but Juneteenth has never been celebrated in my hometown.

The context for Juneteenth has changed for me now that I live in Texas, where Juneteenth was born.  Long celebrated in the Lone Star State, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1980 thanks to state Representative Al Edwards. Since then, the holiday has been celebrated in more and more communities, from Galveston to San Antonio, from Nacogdoches to El Paso.

This year, Houston Mayor, Annise Parker, announced plans to begin renovations on the historic Emancipation Park in order to create a “magnet for history tourism and for neighboring private development.” At the state capitol, efforts to reboot an African American Texan memorial sculpture after a Juneteenth sculpture was scrapped under a cloud of controversy are underway.

Juneteenth should certainly be a celebration to honor the end of slavery in the United States. It should also be a reminder of how far we have to go to attain racial justice and equality.

Eric Tang, assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, points to Austin as a place that needs to take a serious look at how it is serving its African American community.  Infant mortality, HIV diagnoses, and the number of children removed from their families by child welfare agencies is significantly higher for African Americans in Austin than in other parts of the country. Even as the wealth gap between blacks and whites in Austin reaches a 30-year high, community resources like the Northeast Community Care Center are being shut down.

Whether we’re in a small town in rural Michigan, or Austin, a city that claims superlatives like “healthiest,” “most liberal,” “best places to raise kids” and “most sustainable,” our commitment to racial justice needs to continue well after the last Juneteenth celebrations come to a close this year.

State Board of Education – Know Your Candidates

By Gislaine Williams
Statewide Advocacy Coordinator

Did you know that all 15 seats on the State Board of Education (SBOE) are up for election this year?

The SBOE is responsible for establishing curriculum standards and reviewing and approving textbooks for Texas public schools. In the past, the SBOE has used this power to push religious and political agendas, ignoring its basic constitutional responsibility to uphold separation between church and state.

You have the power to change that by electing a board that protects the Constitution and puts children before ideology.

Take the first step by learning more about the candidates running in your district. What would be their answers to these questions?

• What role should religion play in setting curriculum standards?
• What standards do you support for the writing & adoption of TEKS?
• Now that we have state-authorized Bible courses, what other religious traditions should be taught?
• How do you balance your personal faith convictions with your role as a public servant?
• What standards do you support for the writing & adoption of TEKS?
• What, if anything, should be done to protect minority faiths in the classrooms?

Find out your district here.

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Continue reading State Board of Education – Know Your Candidates

A good day for immigrant youth

By Olga Medina
Summer Legal Intern

Today, in a memorandum, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would halt the deportation of immigrant youth.  In effect, young immigrants who would otherwise qualify for the DREAM Act will receive deferred action for two years (subject to renewal) and become eligible for work authorization upon the satisfaction of certain requirements.  The memo authorizes the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in cases involving immigrant youth, regardless of whether or not an individual is in removal proceedings.

The announcement comes on the 30th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, which declared that immigrant and citizen children alike should have equal access to public education. Today’s announcement is a significant step forward for immigrants who were brought to the country at a very young age, have grown up in American society, and have obtained a public education under Plyler.  The announcement is a testament to the work of young activists and their allies who have advanced their cause and builds momentum for necessary policy changes in our immigration policies.

Educational access should be about fairness, not identity

By Olga Medina
Summer Legal Intern

Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, which declared that immigrant and citizen children alike should have equal access to public education.  The effect of the Court’s decision was especially pronounced in Texas.  The case followed passage of a state law that denied school districts funding for the education of undocumented students and authorized charging tuition based on a child’s immigration status.  Justice Brennan articulated the Court’s reasoning: “By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”  In effect, the Court reinforced the idea that principles of fairness, rather than one’s identity, should dictate educational access.

Thirty years after Plyler, immigrant students continue to confront obstacles that impede their full contribution to their communities and society.  Texas remains a battleground.  Although it was the first state in the nation to offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, efforts to repeal the law persist.  Even students who manage to obtain higher education often are unable to apply their skills and knowledge because of the roadblocks they face due to their immigration status.  These circumstances call for consideration of comprehensive immigration reform and enacting measures such as the DREAM Act, legislation that would establish a path to legal status for immigrant youth who pursue higher education or complete military service.  As of 2008, there were an estimated 258,000 potential DREAM Act beneficiaries in Texas.

While Plyler had a major impact on the ability of immigrant students to obtain an education, significant challenges continue to prevent them from becoming full members of society.  Addressing these challenges will be critical to ensuring that these youth can contribute to our nation’s progress, as envisioned by Justice Brennan, and ensuring that Plyler’s promise is fulfilled.

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Travis County Should End Compliance With ICE’s “Secure Communities” Program

By Daniel Collins
Summer Policy Intern

Last week, the Washington D.C. Council announced they would refuse to comply with the federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) controversial “Secure Communities” deportation program (“S-Comm”).  The program, under which ICE requests local law enforcement agencies detain arrested individuals with questionable immigration status so they may be taken into custody by ICE, is an open invitation to racial profiling, undermines trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and has led to the deportation of more than a million people, many arrested for low-level, non-violent offenses.

The nation’s capital joins a growing list of jurisdictions declining to participate in the federal government’s deportation dragnet.  Unfortunately, that trend has yet to reach Texas.   In fact, Austin—thought by many to be the Lone Star State’s most progressive city—deports more persons for low-level offenses than almost any other U.S. city!

One important fact: The decision to honor an ICE detainer request is completely discretionary.  In fact, under federal law such detainers must be voluntary and local governments risk being sued if they detain someone mistakenly or for too long.  Furthermore, local police have no business acting as de facto ICE agents.  Ultimately, S-Comm drives a wedge between local police and their communities by making undocumented community members afraid to report a crime for fear of being deported. There simply is nothing “secure” about that.

The law that just passed in Washington D.C. will instruct local police to only comply with detention requests for those over 18 who have been convicted of a dangerous crime.  Other jurisdictions like Milwaukee have enacted similar laws.  Other counties have taken more aggressive measures to keep S-Comm out of their communities.  Some, for example, have required ICE to reimburse local government for any costs of complying with a detainer, while others have simply ignored all of ICE’s requests.

So why in Texas do Travis County Jail officials honor every detainer from ICE?  Why is it that twice as many of the more than 2,000 total people deported from Travis County were arrested for only a misdemeanor offense?  Sheriff Greg Hamilton still believes the detainer requests are mandatory, despite ICE guidance and legal interpretation to the contrary.  He also argues that ICE detainers should be complied with because released persons might possibly commit violent crimes.  This argument simply cannot justify denying arrestees due process rights, or holding them without proof of crime.

In Austin, a coalition of local civil and human rights groups have called on city and county government to end compliance with S-Comm detainers.  Only with community support may it be ensured that Austin truly is a secure community for all residents.

Sunset Commission Sets the Tone for Criminal Justice Reforms in 2013

By Kate Vickery
Policy Intern

The last time that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was up for Sunset review, the prison system in Texas was bursting at the seams. Today, thanks to some positive reforms during the 2007 session, adult incarceration rates have leveled out.  The state has a long way to go to make a real improvement in our chronic over-incarceration problem, but thanks to the advocacy of groups like the ACLU of Texas, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Civil Rights Project, and many others, reforms are starting to be made.

All of these groups were in attendance for the Sunset Advisory Commission hearing on June 5, 2012 at the Capitol.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Board of Pardons and Paroles, Windham School District, and Correctional Managed Health Care Committee are under review by the Sunset Advisory Commission.

Our Policy Strategist Matt Simpson and I attended to give the ACLU of Texas’ testimony on a number of issues that are currently not included in the Sunset Commission’s recommendations. It is important to start the conversation on these important issues because the Sunset process often sets the stage for the legislative priorities for the next session, which will begin in January.  The ACLU of Texas is particularly interested in:

We were pleasantly surprised by the support for reform of the Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision (MRIS) program. MRIS is a mechanism for releasing elderly (Texas’ oldest inmate is currently 90), and mentally and terminally ill individuals who are not a risk to public safety. Currently, the sickest inmates can cost the state up to $1 million per year each for health care while posing no public safety threat.  Senator Whitmire called for lawmakers to make a “tough vote” for a bill that would make it easier to release these individuals, underscoring that this likely will be an uphill political battle.

Medical release was one of many issues discussed throughout the day and it was inspiring to hear the testimony of the agencies dedicated to criminal justice reform and the powerful stories of family members of incarcerated individuals.

To download the full Sunset Commission staff report and recommendations for all four agencies, go here.  You can watch the full video of the hearing here.

To get more involved in these important issues, sign up for ACLU of Texas e-alerts!