By Sarah Solon, Communications Strategist, ACLU
This isn't a blog about the top ten kissing tips for spring. And it's not a blog making fun of the magazine that usually delivers such tips. This is a blog applauding Cosmopolitan for taking a firm stance against criminalizing pregnant women. Well done.
You might think it would be hard to find someone who falls into the "pro-criminalizing pregnant women" camp. Sadly, you'd be wrong. A dangerous bill has wormed its way through the Tennessee legislature that would allow prosecutors to bring criminal assault charges against women who use drugs during pregnancy.
In all seriousness, it's encouraging to see Cosmo publish a thorough take-down of this bill. It's a sign that deep misgivings about the needless expansion of our criminal justice system are now so widely held that they've reached pop culture salience. For decades, this country has ratcheted up the number of crimes on the books and the length of time we lock people up, pushing the number of people under correctional control to about 7 million. Many of these people would be better served outside of the criminal justice system entirely.
That's certainly true for pregnant women who use drugs. Just in case it needs to be said: I'm not in favor of women using drugs during pregnancy. I am, however, an ardent supporter of solving problems instead of making them worse.
In 2013, 921 babies in Tennessee were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a bundle of problems linked to addictive, illegal, or prescription drug use during pregnancy. We need to recognize that this is a health care crisis. Our goal should be making treatment as easily available as possible, not erecting criminal barriers between people and the care they need.
Criminalization will not lead to fewer babies born with NAS; instead, it will encourage pregnant women to lie to their doctors and shy away from prenatal care out of fear of ending up behind bars. NAS is treatable, which means it's vital people get the medical care they need. Criminal penalties will only scare people away from seeking treatment.
What's more, this bill misses the pragmatic mark. Study after study from around the country shows that stiffer criminalities do not lead to less drug use. Citing the ineffectiveness of criminalization, even the American College of Obstetricians Gynecologists has come out against any bill that would punish pregnant women for substance abuse.
Among its many problems, this bill would only criminalize certain types of drug users. By penalizing only "cocaine and heroin," as one of the bill's sponsors has said, this legislation ignores fetal injury from alcohol use, cigarettes, and prescription drugs. This narrow focus makes no sense, considering that 60 percent of mothers of babies born with NAS in 2013 had a prescription for the drugs they were taking. Some have suggested the law will be selectively enforced as well. Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, issued this warning: "I can almost guarantee that this [law] will be used disproportionately against African-American women because, even though we know that fewer African-American women than white women use drugs during pregnancy, they are more likely to be blamed for the outcomes of their pregnancies." Diaz-Tello's point is underscored by a study finding that white women have higher rates of alcohol and cigarette use during pregnancy than Black women.
If we truly care about the problem of NAS, it would be much more productive to simply leave intact the law Tennessee passed last year, the Safe Harbor Act, which allows women who have used drugs during pregnancy to seek out healthcare and treatment without fear of having their parental rights terminated. With the increase in the reported number of babies born addicted to drugs in Tennessee, we do not have time to be distracted. There is a clear solution: eliminate any criminal penalties linked to seeking medical care.
I'd love to claim I said it here first. But the truth is I read it in Cosmo, just after an article on the perfect bikini belly.
By Barry Scheck, Co-Director, The Innocence Project
This piece originally appeared on Salon.
Earlier this month, Glenn Ford, an African-American man, walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary after spending thirty years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. One of the most important contributing factors to his death sentence? Racial discrimination in the selection of his all-white jury. In a community that is almost half African-American, the prosecutor struck African-American jurors with the flimsiest of excuses.
That kind of bias not only contributes to guilty verdicts for the innocent, it tilts the playing field toward death, particularly for defendants of color.
In North Carolina, the state Supreme Court has a chance to show the country that race bias should not be allowed to corrupt our jury system.
Continue reading on Salon.
By Noa Yachot, Communications Strategist, ACLU
The New York Police Department is disbanding the unit that mapped New York’s Muslim communities, their places of worship, and businesses they frequent – based on nothing but their religious beliefs and associations. To this we say: Good Riddance.
But the end of the Zone Assessment Unit – better known by its former, more apt name, the Demographics Unit – doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the NYPD’s unconstitutional surveillance of New York’s Muslims.
The NYPD’s discriminatory spying program has many components, of which the Demographics Unit was just one. (The ACLU, along with the NYCLU and CLEAR Project at CUNY Law School sued the NYPD over the program – read about our case here.) Before we celebrate the end of bias-based policing, we need to ensure that the other abusive tactics employed by the NYPD meet the same fate as the unit. For example:
Use of informants: A wide network of NYPD informants have infiltrated community organizations, mosques, restaurants, bookstores, and more to monitor, record, and take notes on innocent people and innocuous conversations. This needs to stop.
Designation of entire mosques "terrorism enterprises": The NYPD has used “terrorism enterprise investigations” against entire mosques to justify the surveillance of as many people as possible. That unmerited designation has allowed the police department to record sermons and spy on entire congregations.
Discriminatory use of surveillance cameras: Cameras have been set up outside mosques and community events – even weddings – to record community members’ comings and goings and collect license plate numbers of congregants and attendees.
Radicalization theory: The NYPD must disavow its debunked “radicalization” theory, on which discriminatory surveillance is based. This misguided notion, which we’ve described in detail here, treats with suspicion people engaging in First Amendment-protected activities including “wearing traditional Islamic clothing [and] growing a beard,” abstaining from alcohol, and “becoming involved in social activism” – meaning, basically, anyone who identifies as Muslim, harbors Islamic beliefs, or engages in Islamic religious practices.
Discriminatory surveillance by other units: The Demographics Unit’s discriminatory mapping activities shouldn’t be carried out by other parts of the NYPD and its Intelligence Division.
The Demographics Unit has sown fear and mistrust among hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers – creating “psychological warfare in our community,” Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York told the New York Times. Shutting it down is a welcome step, but it’s only the first one. New York’s Muslims — and all its communities — deserve more and better from their police force than bias-based policing.
Ah, April 15th. Tax Day.
When you pay taxes, you assume they'll be used to support education, health care, public transportation, and other programs that make your community stronger. That's true, but so is this: some of your hard-earned dollars might be bundled into a massive payout to a private prison company that cares more about profits than public safety.
That's right, taxpayers: for-profit prison companies are skimming off the top of taxes you pay ostensibly to create safer communities. And no company benefits more than the largest private prison company out there: the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA.
CCA gets contracts all over the country by promising it can run prisons better and more cheaply. But time and time again, they've broken that promise. That's why the ACLU and the ACLU of Tennessee are launching the "Who Is CCA?" campaign to expose the business tactics and egregious track record of CCA, which is headquartered in Nashville. Our aim is to deliver a petition with tens of thousands of signatures to Governor Bill Haslam asking him to walk away from his contracts with a company that has made massive profits off our country's overuse of incarceration.
Nearly 29 years ago, I stood before members of the Tennessee House of Representatives to testify against prison privatization in Tennessee. At the time, privatization was being hailed as the "cure-all" to numerous problems plaguing the Tennessee prison system. But ACLU-TN believed there were too many unanswered questions about the constitutional, financial, and ethical ramifications of a private, profit-driven corporation taking over custody of inmates. Today, we have those answers — and they aren't pretty.
CCA operates more than 60 facilities across the country and pocketed $1.7 billion in taxpayer-funded profits in 2012 alone. CCA values profits above the public safety improvements that would actually benefit our communities. In2012 Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the company reported that "risks" to their bottom line include "reductions in crime rates."
Private prisons have incentives to maximize profits by cutting corners at the expense of decent conditions and safety, so the high levels of violence within some CCA facilities shouldn't be surprising. Take just two examples. At a CCA-run facility in Ohio, prisoners were forced to defecate in bags because they lacked access to running water. A study by the Idaho Department of Corrections found that an Idaho CCA facility, known as the "Gladiator School," had four times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults as the state's seven other prisons combined.
Hiring for-profit companies to run our prisons is not saving us any also wastes our money. As just one example, Tennesseans were required by contract to pay CCA nearly half a million dollars for empty beds at the Metro Detention Facility in Nashville in 2011. What's worse, CCA admitted to falsely billing Idaho for 4,800 hours of unstaffed security posts during night shifts at the facility.
With all of these problems, how does CCA continue to grow? By spending millions of dollars on political contributions and by litigating to ensure it is not subject to the same open-records laws as publicly-run prisons.
Our reliance on private prisons is not cost-effective, safe, or fair. It's time for Tennessee to join the ranks of Texas, Idaho, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and walk away from its contracts with CCA.
By Brett Max Kaufman, Legal Fellow, ACLU National Security Project
The oft-delayed, secrecy-plagued 9/11 military commission hearings came to an abrupt halt today before the scheduled arguments surrounding the competency of defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh even began. Just minutes after Army Col. James Pohl called the courtroom roll, defense lawyers revealed that, hours earlier, they had filed an emergency motion seeking to stop this week's proceedings and asking the court to investigate yet another instance of alleged government meddling with defense counsel in this death penalty case.
This time, said James Harrington — lead counsel for bin al Shibh — two FBI agents visited the Defense Security Officer assigned to bin al Shibh's defense team on the morning of Sunday, April 6. Each team of defense lawyers is assigned a DSO, who vets classified filings and acts as a liaison with the government on classification issues. Defense lawyers described the DSO as charged with helping that team further its mission of mounting a vigorous and effective defense, and his work falls within the attorney–client privilege.
Harrington suggested that the visit, during which the agents had inquired into various activities of all five defense teams, was part of an investigation into wrongdoing on the part of the defense attorneys themselves. (Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald has reported that the investigation relates to the publication of a 36-page document by defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in January — a document several 9/11 defense lawyers say was never classified, is not relevant to the pending prosecution, and was distributed widely last year to all lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution.)
According to Cheryl Bormann, the lawyer for defendant Walid bin Attash, the agents also had the DSO sign a "Sensitive Information Non-Disclosure Agreement," a document that the attorneys had filed with the court for inspection as part of their new motion. Defense attorneys also raised a related concern: Have other members of defense staffs been approached — and gagged from ever saying so?
Today in court — before a stunned gallery of journalists and NGO observers — the defense lawyers asked Judge Pohl a simple question: How can they advise their clients on any issue if they are uncertain whether serious conflicts of interests (such as an FBI investigation of the lawyers) might prevent them from giving those clients unbiased, confidential advice?
The allegations about improper FBI conduct are serious. They are also of a piece with other troubling events that demonstrate the way in which the government continues to jeopardize the legitimacy of its own prosecution. In January 2013, an "external body" outside the courtroom — almost certainly the CIA — cut off sound to the public during a discussion of CIA black sites, without the knowledge of even the judge. Months later, files disappeared from supposedly secure defense-counsel hard drives. Next, defense lawyers learned that monitoring equipment had been installed at their counsel tables and that secret microphones had been placed in the smoke detectors in attorney–client visiting rooms.
All of these events allegedly took place without the prosecution's knowledge, raising the question of why the government seems to be prosecuting the most important terrorism case in the nation's history while its left hand is unaware of what its right hand is doing.
Today, Judge Pohl adjourned the proceedings 36 minutes after they started, with the prospects for any further substantive discussions this week looking dim. Although the proceedings will resume at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, the potential for a lengthy investigation into the basis for and consequences of the FBI's visit to the security officer has cast a dark shadow over whether anything meaningful can, and will, be discussed.
Once again, these stop-and-start commission hearings are proving to be more stop than start.
By Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
Today, the ACLU and ACLU of Utah filed an amicus brief in support of a Utah paramedic whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police swept up his confidential prescription records in a dragnet search. Law enforcement’s disregard for basic legal protections in the case is shocking.
The United Fire Authority (UFA) is Utah’s largest fire agency, with 26 fire stations in communities surrounding Salt Lake City. Last year, some UFA employees discovered that several vials of morphine in ambulances based at three fire stations had been emptied of medication. Suspecting theft, they called the police. At this point, one would expect police to interview firefighters and paramedics with access to ambulances at those three stations and try to draw up a reasonable list of suspects. But one detective had a different idea.
Within a day or two of receiving the theft report, a detective with the Cottonwood Heights Police Department logged into the Utah Controlled Substances Database and downloaded the prescription histories of all 480 UFA employees. The database tracks patients’ prescriptions for medications used to treat a long list of common medical conditions, and the records can reveal extremely sensitive health information. But unlike some other states, Utah doesn’t require police to get a warrant before accessing this private data. The detective took advantage of this loophole and obtained a great deal of confidential information without going to a judge or demonstrating any individualized suspicion.
Even after scooping up the prescription histories of every UFA employee, the detective still couldn’t figure out who might be behind the morphine theft. Instead of stopping there, however, he went on a new fishing expedition through the records, looking for anything he deemed suspicious. He read through the prescription histories of hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, and clerical staff, learning what medications they took and revealing private facts like whether they suffered from an anxiety disorder, chronic pain, insomnia, or AIDS. He identified four people whose records seemed to indicate dependency on opioid painkillers, and convinced a prosecutor to charge three of them with prescription fraud. One of them, paramedic Ryan Pyle, filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the warrantless search of his prescription records violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The ACLU is now weighing in on his side.
Under the Fourth Amendment, police must get a warrant before searching items or places in which people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The ACLU recently won a case in federal court in Oregon where we sued the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for requesting records from Oregon’s prescription database using administrative subpoenas instead of warrants. As the judge in that case explained, “The court easily concludes that [patients’] subjective expectation of privacy in their prescription information is objectively reasonable. ... The prescription information maintained by [the Oregon database] is intensely private as it connects a person’s identifying information with the prescription drugs they use.”
The Utah detective failed to get a warrant, and therefore violated the Fourth Amendment. As the ACLU’s brief explains, that means the court should throw out the evidence illegally gathered by police. If the Fourth Amendment means anything, it means that police cannot have free rein to flagrantly violate our medical privacy rights without judicial oversight or probable cause.
By Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
If you ask the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it doesn't deport parents whose most serious crime is a traffic offense. In fact, according to its statistics, 98 percent of people deported fell into one of DHS's "priorities" – designed to deport people who pose a threat to public safety, national security, and border security.
Someone should tell that to Gerardo Hernandez-Contreras, who entered the U.S. in 2001 when he was only 15 years old to find work after his father died. Five years later, he married his wife, U.S. citizen Aide Vasquez, and together they had two children – born and raised in sunny San Diego. On November 27, 2012, Mr. Hernandez-Contreras was headed to pick up ice cream for his kids when he was pulled over by the San Diego Police Department for talking to his wife on his cell phone while driving. DHS officials were called to the scene, and just one day later, he was deported to Mexico, a country he had not lived in for over a decade.
According to DHS, people like Mr. Hernandez-Contreras are not supposed to be deported.
So, what went wrong?
1. Mr. Hernandez-Contreras should never have been taken into DHS custody
The first breakdown in the DHS machine occurred the very moment that DHS took custody of Mr. Hernandez-Contreras. Because San Diego is within 100 miles of the border, Mr. Hernandez-Contreras may have been considered a "recent border entrant" – and thus a DHS priority – despite the fact that he had lived in the country for years. Or DHS may have simply ignored its own stated priorities when it took him into custody. Bottom line: DHS needs to redefine its priorities so they actually focus on safety threats. And DHS needs to adopt a policy of only taking people into custody who fall into one of these new priorities, regardless of whether they are arrested directly by DHS or local police through flawed programs such as Secure Communities.
2. DHS has not implemented its own prosecutorial discretion policy
DHS's next misstep was its failure to appropriately apply its own prosecutorial discretion policy. In June 2011, DHS issued its guidance on "prosecutorial discretion" – a mechanism by which DHS closes the cases of people who do not pose a security threat or have circumstances that weigh in favor of them remaining in the U.S. Mr. Hernandez-Contreras was a prime candidate for prosecutorial discretion. He had no criminal history, had lived in the country for over a decade, and had U.S. citizen family. Yet, because DHS does not screen all individuals prior to deportation to determine if they are eligible for discretion, Mr. Hernandez-Contreras slipped through the cracks.
And he's no exception. Discretion has been applied to less than 8 percent of all cases in the immigration backlog – meanwhile roughly two-thirds of the people that DHS deports either have no criminal history or have only been convicted of minor misdemeanors, such as driving without a license.
3. Mr. Hernandez-Contreras did not get an immigration hearing or even a shred of due process
Similar to over 70 percent of the people that DHS deports, Mr. Hernandez-Contreras never had the opportunity to present his case to a judge. Instead, DHS officials simply presented him with a mechanically pre-checked voluntary return form and encouraged him to sign it based on blatant misrepresentations about the consequences of doing so. By signing the form, he waived his right to a hearing and "consented" to removal/expulsion from the United States. He never received the opportunity to consult with a lawyer, a list of legal service providers, or information regarding the penalties associated with voluntary departure. Nor was he advised that by taking voluntary return, he would be subjected to a ten-year ban on reentering the United States, even though he is married to a U.S. citizen. Had Mr. Hernandez-Contreras received a hearing or the opportunity to consult with a lawyer, he would have been eligible to remain in the country.
Since his deportation, Mr. Hernandez-Contreras has lived in Tijuana – separated both from his wife and his two U.S. citizen children. Just over the border, his 4-year-old son has trouble sleeping without his father, while his six-year-old daughter's performance in school has suffered. His wife has been forced to raise their children on her own. DHS says it doesn't deport people like Mr. Hernandez-Contreras. Unfortunately, its enforcement policies tell a different story.
The ACLU's proposed recommendations to DHS to prevent people like Mr. Hernandez-Contreras from being deported can be found here.
By Laura W. Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office & Hina Shamsi, Director, ACLU National Security Project
The Justice Department is considering revised racial profiling guidance that, if issued, could set back race relations and basic fairness in this country. We hope that it does not make that mistake.
The New York Times on Thursday reported that “long-awaited revisions to the Justice Department’s racial profiling rules would allow the F.B.I. to continue many, if not all, of the tactics opposed by civil rights groups, such as mapping ethnic populations and using that data to recruit informants and open investigations.” In light of the Obama administration’s recent and deservedly lauded criminal justice policy reforms, we had expected it would take a far different approach to racial profiling than this. After all, revisions to racial profiling rules that retain loopholes permitting racial, religious, and national origin profiling are not the reforms that Americans need and deserve.
The Justice Department guidance that urgently needs revision was issued in 2003 by Attorney General John Ashcroft. The Ashcroft Guidance bans racial profiling, which it condemns as discriminatory, “not merely wrong, but also ineffective,” and “patently unacceptable.” Despite these strong words, the Ashcroft Guidance contains gaping holes: It does not prohibit profiling based on religion or national origin and permits racial, religious, and ethnic profiling in national security investigations and at the nation’s borders.
The Ashcroft Guidance’s loopholes thus gave federal law enforcement express permission to discriminate against America’s minorities. And wrongful discrimination in the national security and border contexts quickly spread to others. Government records obtained by the ACLU showed the FBI mapped minority communities around the country based on crude and false stereotypes about their propensity to commit crime. The targeted communities include Arab Americans in Michigan, African Americans in Georgia, Chinese and Russian Americans in California, and Latino Americans in multiple states.
Mapping is just one part of the problem.
Using expanded authorities that permit investigations without actual evidence of wrongdoing, the FBI has also targeted minority communities for interviews based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. It has used informants to conduct surveillance in community centers, mosques, and other public gathering places and against people exercising their First Amendment right to worship or to engage in political advocacy. And among America’s minority communities, “flying while brown” soon joined “driving while black” as a truism of government-sanctioned discrimination and stigma. It’s hard to overstate the damage done to the FBI’s relationship with minorities, particularly American Muslims.
The damage, however, has spread further.
When federal law enforcement leads in discriminatory profiling, state and local law enforcement will follow. Nowhere is that clearer than in New York City, where the NYPD – which is twice the size of the FBI – launched a massive program of discriminatory surveillance and investigation of American Muslims, mapping the places where they carry out daily activities and sending informants to spy on mosques and Muslim community organizations, student groups, and businesses. After the Associated Press broke a series of stories describing this program in stark and shocking detail, the NYPD defended itself, arguing that it was only doing what the FBI was permitted to do. Again, it’s hard to overstate the harm.
From the ACLU’s work with New York’s Muslim communities, we know that a generation of youth is growing up fearful of its local police force, scared to exercise the rights to freedom of worship, speech, and association.
Fortunately, the issuance of the revised Guidance on Race has been delayed and both the Justice Department and the civil rights community have a crucial opportunity to put a spotlight on the FBI, which vigorously opposes those fighting for equality. According to the New York Times, the FBI’s argument seems to be that it needs to identify where Somalis live to investigate potential Somali terrorism suspects.
But that argument must be rejected for the same reason that we reject it in other contexts.
Many mass shooters are young white males, yet we rightly don’t map where whites live or send informants to majority white communities to ferret out potential mass shooters. Put another way, the FBI’s argument presumes what the Ashcroft Guidance “emphatically rejects”: that crime can be prevented by the mass stereotyping of entire communities. Not only is that wrong, it is a ham-handed approach that squanders resources that should properly be devoted to investigating actual wrongdoing.
Most importantly, President Obama needs to step in. He has the ultimate authority to make the FBI stand down and to ensure that his administration does not issue racial profiling guidance that permits bias-based policing. As a coalition of 225 groups from across America’s civil rights and minority communities have urged, the guidance must:
- prohibit profiling based religion, national origin, or sexual orientation;
- close the loopholes for the border and national security;
- apply to state and local law enforcement agencies who work in partnership with the federal government or receive federal funding;
- cover surveillance activities; and
- contain enforceable standards.
If these crucial changes are not made, the civil rights legacy of President Obama and Attorney General Holder will be forever marred by discrimination.
By Emily Naphtal, ACLU Women's Rights Project
Everyone should go see Anita, a recently released documentary that revolves around Anita Hill's controversial 1991 Senate hearing on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States. As most people know, in the hearing, she testified about Thomas' unwanted sexual advances towards her while she worked for him in the early 1980s.
As Anita says in the film, "harassment is not really about sex. It's about power, and abusing it." After experiencing harassment, Anita reclaimed her power by using her voice. So often it can seem that one voice and one story do not matter. It seems easier to remain silent. But if we can find the courage to come forward and tell our stories, as Anita did, that courage can ripple outward.
The film shows how 20 years after the Senate hearing, Anita's courage continues to ripple outward. It brings issues of sexual harassment and gender equality to the fore, highlighting both how far we have come as a nation, and how far we still have left to go.
In the early 1980s, sexual harassment was just beginning to be a viable legal claim. The Supreme Court of the United States did not explicitly recognize sexual harassment in the workplace as illegal discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 until 1986.
Through the 1980s, the Court continued to scale back the robust discrimination protections of the Civil Rights Act, until November 21, 1991, about one month after Anita Hill's mid-October testimony, a perhaps guilt ridden Congress bolstered anti-discrimination laws with the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
Despite progress, sexual harassment remains a widespread problem today. In particular, students of a variety of ages are still experiencing educational environments permeated with harassment and discrimination, as the documentary highlights.
Recently, the Federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found that officials at an East Texas high school were wrong to punish a student who reported she was raped by another student on campus. OCR required the school to revise its Title IX policies to prevent similar future occurrences.
Charges are pending against Carnegie Mellon University for similar violations of discrimination laws.
Through speaking out, these students, like Anita Hill, reclaimed their power and helped pave a path of equality for future students.
By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office & Tyler Ray, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Tayna Fogle is a mother of two, grandmother of six, a leader in her community, and a powerful example of how difficult it is for citizens to regain their voting rights.
Two decades ago, Tayna served a sentence for a non-violent drug offense and writing overdrawn checks. Today Tayna has turned her life around and in her own words is "giv[ing] back to my community now, talking to organizations . . . talking to kids to make sure they don't make the same kinds of mistakes I did."
Tayna lives in Kentucky, one of three states that permanently disfranchises individuals with a felony conviction; the other two states are Florida and Iowa. The rest of the states have a variety of disqualifying standards and restoration procedures, including different rules for whether you can vote on probation or parole or after restitution of fines.
Making matters worse, many criminal disfranchisement laws proliferated during the Jim Crow era and were intended to bar minorities from voting. The impact of these laws continues today. Nationwide one in 13 African Americans of voting age have lost the right to vote. In turn, this has impacted the families and communities of those who are disfranchised by reducing their collective political voice.
Florida and Kentucky have the highest disfranchisement rate of African Americans in the country at 23 and 22 percent, and over half a million individuals are permanently denied the right to vote in these two states alone. Nationwide approximately 4.4 million people have been released from prison and are living and working in the community but are unable to vote.
The only way for Tayna to get her voting rights restored was to receive an individual pardon from the governor. This is no easy task – a mere 2 percent have had their voting rights restored by pardon in her state. Absent automatic restoration of voting rights, the process for having rights restored has varied from one political administration to another.
The odds that Tayna would be able to have her rights restored were slim under a previous administration, but her endless persistence paid off. After going through the pardon process twice – including the burdensome process of writing an essay, providing three character references, and paying a fee – Tayna achieved the rare feat of regaining the right to vote. Despite her victory, Tayna remains concerned about why she had to fight so hard to regain her voting rights. "I never have figured out what committing a crime has to do with being able to vote," she said. "We have to pay for that same crime twice – but with a life sentence."
Many deserving and eligible citizens have not been so fortunate. Tayna's success is unique, but the loss of voting rights through vastly different and confusing disfranchisement laws is not.
Yesterday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a critical bill that would fix this problem by establishing a uniform standard for voting in federal elections. The Democracy Restoration Act would eliminate the confusion caused by the current patchwork of state laws; streamline election administration; ensure that probationers never lose their right to vote in federal elections; and notify people about their right to vote in federal elections when they are leaving prison, sentenced to probation, or convicted of a misdemeanor.
By continuing to deny Americans the right to vote based on a past criminal conviction, the government endorses a system that expects these citizens to contribute to the community but denies them participation in our democracy. That is why the Democracy Restoration Act is supported by a very broad range of faith, law enforcement, and civil rights organizations. It's also why the easing of disfranchisement laws has received strong bipartisan support in many states.
Tayna Fogle has made the most out of her rare second chance, and millions of other American citizens deserve the opportunity to do the same through the Democracy Restoration Act's fair and uniform nationwide process.