ACLU News

Politicians Have No Place Making Parole Decisions for Young People

For nearly two decades, courts and legislatures have been rolling back the damage wrought by the “superpredator” myth of the 1990s — the racist notion that young people who commit crimes, especially young people of color, will be a menace to society for their entire lives. This devastating ideology sent too many children to prison for too long, but in a series of modern decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the tide. Recognizing that young people are immature, impulsive, and vulnerable to peer pressure — and that they outgrow these traits with time — the court decreed that young people deserve a second chance at freedom, even if they’ve done terrible things. In the language of the court, young people have the right to a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

States across the country have taken heed, bolstering opportunities for young people sentenced to lengthy prison terms to receive earlier, and better, chances for release on parole. But California imposes a daunting obstacle to such second chances: the governor’s power to single-handedly reverse a decision of the parole board in homicide cases. California is a shameful outlier in this respect. It is one of just two states (Oklahoma being the other) that allows the governor to veto parole grants. Maryland recently abolished the practice, because, as one former governor put it, “How can it not be political for a governor to hold all the power” in parole decisions?

Indeed, politics is baked into the reversal power in California. Following widespread outcry over a controversial parole grant in the 1980s, California’s then-governor pushed a ballot initiative authorizing him to block the parole board’s release decisions. Unsurprisingly, governors regularly exercise this power in high-profile, politically toxic cases, like those of the Manson family members or 77-year-old Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of killing Robert Kennedy, despite the fact that these people are now elderly and have near-spotless records over decades in prison. But governors also frequently reverse in less infamous cases for fear of political retribution.

Consider the cases of our clients. For example, Joseph Pagaduan was abused by his parents throughout his childhood and, at the age of 18, killed them in a spontaneous and emotionally charged incident. Now in his 40s, Joey has built an exceptional record of his rehabilitation, including by pursuing collegiate education, working as a substance abuse counselor, editing the prison newspaper, participating in a therapeutic acting workshop, learning a variety of trades, and excelling in his work assignments and programming. The parole board rightly awarded Joey a second chance at freedom, finding that he posed no present danger, but the governor reversed the board’s decision absent any evidence to the contrary.

David Adkins’ case presents the same issue. Abandoned, abused, and neglected as a young child, David found solace in drugs, alcohol, and an older peer group. At the age of 16, while heavily intoxicated, he and a peer tragically shot and killed three friends in a heated altercation. That was 32 years ago, and since then, David has turned his life around. He has been sober and misconduct-free for 20 years. And he has pursued virtually every program, class, or work assignment available to him. Yet when the parole board granted him release, the governor reversed, requiring him to remain in prison despite his obvious rehabilitation.

Last week, the ACLU and ACLU of Northern California filed a lawsuit on behalf of Joey, David, and others alleging that the California governor’s power to veto parole grants violates the rights of young people to a “meaningful opportunity for release.” There is simply an unacceptably high risk that parole reversals are grounded in a governor’s political calculations, rather than public safety. That’s why we have asked the courts to abolish the governor’s veto power over the parole board in the cases of young people.

As our clients prove, children are so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. Their redemption must be recognized and not reduced to a matter of politics. Anything less would deprive them of their right to return home as mature, responsible community members.

 

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Six Ways You Can Join the Fight for Abortion Rights

With the increasing likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the rights and lives of millions are on the line. But this fight isn’t just taking place at the Supreme Court. Here’s how you can take action.

Pledge

No matter where you live, you can join the fight and support our partners fighting for abortion rights. A good place to start? Take the pledge to show your support.

Mobilize

The ACLU is joining partners in a nationwide mobilization on Saturday, May 14. RSVP now to join a Bans Off rally near you.

https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/rightfully-ours/bans-off-our-bodies#events

Text

Can’t attend a rally or would prefer a more remote option? Text FIGHTBACK to 826-23 to join ACLU alerts for more actions and updates on the crucial work ahead – delivered right to your phone.*

Talk

Check out our guide to discussing abortion rights at the dinner table.

https://www.aclu.org/news/reproductive-freedom/your-mini-guide-to-discussing-abortion-rights-at-the-dinner-table

  Vote

Credit: Gwen Schroeder

As we head into the midterm elections and prepare for the 2024 national election, we must center abortion in the public debate for all elected officials, and support candidates who unequivocally support abortion rights. You can ask your elected officials and local candidates where they stand on reproductive rights, and demand commitments to protecting abortion access. To fight back, research your candidates and spread the word.

  Donate

Across the country, abortion funds are helping people access care by providing financial assistance to patients in need. You can help expand the impact by donating to an abortion fund today.

For more information on how to get support when seeking an abortion, check out the National Network of Abortion Funds.

You can also donate to help the ACLU continue our fight for reproductive freedom. Together, we will work toward a better future — one in which everyone is free to make decisions about their own lives and futures.

Credit: Gwen Schroeder

In courthouses and state legislatures across the country, the ACLU is challenging abortion restrictions and promoting abortion access in close collaboration with local providers and our partners. We’ve already shown we can win, and our strategies continue to evolve as the fight for bodily autonomy does. Our advocacy efforts have helped pass legislation protecting or expanding abortion access in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And after years of advocacy, we won a federal lawsuit challenging a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule that required patients seeking mifepristone, a safe drug used for abortion, to pick up the pill in- person at a medical facility. The FDA has permanently repealed the in-person dispensing requirement since that victory, expanding essential access to abortion in states across the country.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides about Roe, the ACLU will never stop defending people’s right to decide when and whether to have a child, and to ensure that everyone who has decided to have an abortion has access to the care and support they need. The ACLU has been fighting for abortion access since before Roe v. Wade was decided, and the work continues. We are committed to using the full force of the organization to do this. We will continue to fight in the courts, in statehouses, and in Congress, at the ballot box through ballot measures and other races, and in the streets — not just today — for as long as it takes.

*By texting FIGHTBACK to 826-23 you are agreeing to receive phone calls and texts (including automated recurring text messages) from the ACLU and its state affiliates at the contacts provided. Message & Data Rates May Apply. Text STOP to opt out of automated texts. Privacy statement.

What you can do:Be a Defender of Abortion RightsJoin People Power

To See the Future of Roe, Look to the States

There are some things we don’t know about the leaked Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which indicated the court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that recognized a federal constitutional right to abortion. We’re still waiting on the final decision to be released, which should come by the end of June, and with that wait comes uncertainty and fear.

But even without that final decision, there is a lot we do know.

We know that, as of today, abortion is still legal throughout the country. If someone has an appointment, they should keep it. If someone needs to find an abortion provider, they can go to ineedana.com or abortionfinder.org. If someone needs resources to get an abortion, they should go to abortionfunds.org/need-abortion.

We know that approximately half the states are poised to ban abortion if the Supreme Court lets them. Thirteen states have “trigger bans,” which are designed to go into effect as soon as the court grants states the authority to ban abortion. While some of those laws might face delays in implementation, others will go into effect immediately.

Nine states have pre-Roe bans that were never repealed and could be revived if Roe is overturned, which is why they are sometimes called “zombie bans” because of their potential to come back from the dead. There are also nine states that have passed abortion bans since Roe that were temporarily blocked in court but could be re-litigated and allowed to go into effect if federal precedent changes.

Lastly, there are a handful of states that currently have “firewall” protections – a legislative chamber that will kill hostile bills, a governor who will veto bans, or a state supreme court that will strike down restrictions – but are just one election away from a political environment in which abortion could be banned.

We know that abortion opponents won’t stop with overturning Roe. Already, states like Missouri have signaled an intent to apply their abortion laws outside their own state borders. Indeed, we know anti-abortion activists and politicians won’t rest until they have secured a nationwide ban. And the same politicians coming for abortion will also attack our right to get birth control and marry who we love. Our fundamental rights are under attack.

We know what happens when abortion is banned. Texas has already given us a preview with SB 8, a six-week ban that has now been in effect for more than nine months because of a private enforcement mechanism that made it difficult to block in court. The effects have been devastating, cutting the number of abortions in Texas by half and multiplying the number of patients seeking abortion in bordering states.

We know that the people harmed the most by abortion bans are those who already face the most barriers to health care overall, including people of color, low-income people, immigrants, youth, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ folks, and those who live in rural communities.

We know that those who are able to travel out of state are the lucky ones and that as more states – primarily across the South and Midwest – ban abortion, traveling to another state to obtain care will be an option for fewer and fewer people. That’s not how fundamental rights work anyway. No one should have to leave their home state to obtain essential, time-sensitive health care. Our rights shouldn’t depend on our zip code.

We know that those who can’t marshal the resources to travel to get an abortion elsewhere will be forced to continue a pregnancy against their will – a potentially deadly prospect for Black women in particular, who face a maternal mortality rate that is more than three times the rate for white women in this country.

We know that some states aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court to act. For instance, although Oklahoma already has multiple abortion bans on the books, it recently enacted a Texas copycat law that has cut off abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy and may still pass a total ban on abortion that will be hard to block in court.

Several states, including Tennessee, have advanced restrictions on medication abortion this year, in an attempt to cut off access to abortion pills despite their stellar safety record. And Louisiana is considering a bill that would classify abortion as murder and allow criminal charges to be brought against providers and patients.

But we also know that we are not powerless. We will keep fighting in the courts, in the statehouses, and in the streets. And we will vote like our rights depend on it, because they do.

Several state legislatures are working hard to protect and expand access to abortion care. In the past month or so, Maryland authorized qualified clinicians like nurse practitioners to provide abortion care, established a fund to train and diversify the abortion workforce, and plugged gaps in public and private insurance coverage for abortion care. Connecticut also ensured clinicians can provide abortion care and instituted several measures that seek to protect providers, patients, and helpers from the overreach of states that are hostile to abortion. And Colorado codified the right to abortion and other reproductive health care in state law.

Moreover, in four states this year, abortion will literally be on the ballot – folks in Kansas and Kentucky are working to defeat measures that would take the right to abortion our of their state constitutions, while those in Michigan and Vermont will be fighting to enshrine the right to abortion and other reproductive freedoms in theirs.

In the meantime, abortion funds continue to scale up the existing infrastructure that has worked for decades to connect patients to care and fill the gap between rights and access. And mass mobilizations are being planned around the country. The path forward won’t be quick or easy, but we know we won’t give up our rights without a fight.

 

What you can do:Defend Abortion Access for AllSend your message

Pop Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Classroom Censorship?

This year, the country has seen a staggering number of policies censoring classroom discussions around topics like race, sex, and gender identity. Coupled with these efforts are bans on books that also center around these subjects — bans which hinder students’ ability to learn and talk about these critical topics that impact their daily lives.

In order to protect our right to learn, we must recognize that these policies hinder people’s understanding of their country’s history, the world and communities around them, and themselves. We must also celebrate the literary works that take on these topics. Test your knowledge below about the current wave of classroom censorship measures, as well as some of the books being challenged.

 

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New Report Illustrates How Right to Counsel Prevents Evictions and their Discriminatory Impacts on Communities

Our country is facing a historic eviction crisis. Amid a nationwide housing shortage, rents are surging to unprecedented levels, and many renters cannot keep pace. In 2021, rents rose by an average of 14 percent, with cities like Austin, Miami, New York, Portland, and Newark facing increases as high as 40 percent. Simultaneously, protections against eviction instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic have largely expired. These factors have left more and more people and families across the country at risk of losing their housing. Exacerbating the issue further, renters facing eviction are almost always unrepresented in court proceedings. Nationwide, only 3 percent of renters are represented, compared to 81 percent of landlords on average. Our new report, “No Eviction Without Representation: Evictions’ Disproportionate Harms and the Promise of Right to Counsel,” illustrates how providing a right to counsel helps keep people in their homes.

NEW REPORT: No Eviction Without Representation

Tenants’ right to legal representation in eviction cases is a civil liberties issue, a gender justice, racial justice, and economic justice issue. This report, written in partnership with the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, provides an overview of the devastating consequences of eviction and considers evidence on providing legal representation as a way to reduce evictions and mitigate these harms.


Read More

Legal representation for renters facing eviction is a critically important intervention to keep people in their homes and prevent the long-term harms of eviction. Our new report assesses the impacts of eviction and how they contribute to a cycle of poverty that frequently results in homelessness and harms communities. For example, when evictions force families out of their homes, they often simultaneously force children to change schools, disrupting their education and health. Evictions can also result in job loss, lead to long-term damage to the physical and mental health of those who are evicted, and severely constrict housing choice and accessibility in the future. An eviction record often disqualifies tenants from federal housing assistance, and many landlords won’t accept tenants with a previous record of eviction, leading to a cycle that results in homelessness.

The report also explores how these harms are disproportionately experienced by Black and Latinx people, especially women and children. Black individuals account for nearly 33 percent of all eviction filing defendants, despite comprising only roughly 20 percent of all adult renters. The number of women evicted is 16 percent higher than the number of men evicted, and Black women face eviction filings at nearly twice the rate of white women. In addition, having children in the household is as likely to contribute to an eviction judgement as falling four months behind in rent.

Finally, the report examines how providing legal representation to renters can significantly mitigate a mass eviction crisis. It looks at research from pilot projects, representation and cost-benefit studies, and existing right to counsel programs to assess the impact of legal representation for renters in eviction proceedings. The results are clear: Legal representation for renters is a well-demonstrated, cost-effective intervention in the eviction crisis.

In New York City, the right to counsel has meant that 84 percent of represented renters facing eviction have remained in their homes. In Cleveland, the right to counsel program has helped 93 percent of represented renters avoid an eviction judgment or an involuntary move, and 83 percent of the program’s clients whose goal was to secure rental assistance were able to do so. And in various studies estimating the costs and benefits of a right to counsel, cities and states have been projected to see significant net savings from the program by reducing the costs associated with eviction. Just one example is a study on the potential cost savings of enacting a right to counsel in Massachusetts, which found that such a program would result in an overall estimated cost savings of $36.73 million annually, providing a return of approximately $2.40 for every one dollar spent on full legal representation in eviction cases. And in a recent analysis of Cleveland’s right to counsel, the estimated net savings to Cleveland and Cuyahoga County were approximately $1.8 to $1.9 million.

To date, 15 cities and three states have enacted a right to counsel for renters in eviction cases. Many more are actively considering adopting a right to legal representation for those facing eviction. The research shows that the right to counsel for renters is a vital strategy to prevent and mitigate the harms of eviction.

Our report concludes by making the following recommendations for federal, state, and local governments:

  • The Federal government should:
    • Fully fund efforts to establish and implement the right to counsel for renters at the state and local level.
    • Increase awareness among localities and states about the portions of Emergency Rental Assistance Program and Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars available for legal services, and work to make these funding sources permanent.
  • Local and state governments should:
    • Enact and implement a right to counsel for renters facing eviction in their jurisdictions.
    • Support research and evaluation that assesses longer-term outcomes and identify best practices of right to counsel efforts.

Eviction is a gender justice issue. It is a racial justice issue. It is an economic justice issue. It is a children’s rights issue. And it is a civil liberties issue. The research demonstrates that the right to counsel effectively mitigates and prevents the serious harms of eviction and gives families a fighting chance to stay in their homes and communities. Ensuring a right to counsel for renters in eviction proceedings can play a vital role in helping to address systemic inequity and our nation’s inexcusable failure to invest in affordable housing for all.

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Ask an Expert: Free Speech

In today’s world — whether in classrooms or on social media platforms — many people are conflicted and confused by what actually constitutes free speech. That’s why we figured now would be an excellent time to talk about it. We sourced questions over email, our phone line, and social media, and received hundreds of responses from our audience.

After sorting through the questions, we produced a three-part “Ask an Expert” series on our At Liberty podcast channel featuring the ACLU’s Director of Speech, Privacy, and Technology and legal advisor to Edward Snowden, Ben Wizner. Listen below as Ben answers supporter questions about the First Amendment.

Episode 1: What Is Free Speech? 

Here, we get back to the basics with Free Speech 101, addressing hate speech, misinformation, government regulation of corporate speech, cancel culture, and why we defend free speech.

Episode 1: What Is Free Speech?

Episode 2: Is My Tweet Protected Speech?  

What are the rights of social media platforms to control speech online? How are platforms different from a newspaper or a public square? What are my individual rights to post online?

Episode 2: Is My Tweet Protected Speech?

Episode 3: What are My Speech Rights at School?  

Can schools ban books or remove them from their library without warning or review? What are my rights as a student to fight for my right to learn? The Supreme Court addressed student speech online — remind me what happened?

Episode 3: What are My Speech Rights at School?

The ACLU remains committed to defending our fundamental right to free speech. Most recently, the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology team has been working to fight against classroom censorship bills and book bans taking hold in classrooms and libraries nationwide, to defend our right to freedom of expression online, and to support our First Amendment right at the Supreme Court, among other work.

For more from our Ask an Expert series and weekly episodes on today’s most pressing civil rights and civil liberties issues, subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts.

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A Promising Appointment Brings Hope for Federal Clemency Applicants

In late April, President Biden announced that he would commute the sentences of 75 people, and pardon three others. It was his first act of clemency as president, and a welcome development for those of us in the criminal justice reform world who have been waiting for him to leverage this executive power. The use of that power — which has broad public support — was a good first step. At the ACLU, where we are advocating for the release of 50,000 people from federal and state prisons through our Redemption Campaign, we were heartened to see him take this step. But if the president is to fulfill his commitment to justice and equity, there is a lot more work to be done.

We have reason to hope this administration will continue to take steps in the right direction. Earlier this month, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a former public defender to oversee the office that reviews federal clemency applications. The perspective of Elizabeth Oyer, who represented criminal defendants in Maryland for nearly a decade, is a welcome addition. It’s an encouraging development that a person who has represented people charged with crimes and understands the imbalance of power in federal criminal prosecutions would be the arbiter of relief from that system.

Criminal defense lawyers, and public defenders in particular, understand the power of prosecutors to use their broad discretion to charge people with crimes that drive extreme sentences. This power and how it has been wielded is the reason 98 percent of people charged with a crime opt not to go to trial. The stakes are too high, and the opportunity for relief is minimal outside of the clemency power of the president.

Further, criminal defense lawyers are likely to understand that the elderly and those who were sentenced more harshly than they would be under today’s laws deserve to reap the benefits of changes in sentencing laws. A criminal defense lawyer like Oyer will understand that those charged with violent crimes, especially those who committed the crime before the age of 25, should be given a second chance. The data shows that people age out of crime — including those who commit violent crimes — and that older people who are released are unlikely to reoffend.

Oyer likely also understands that those who do opt to go to trial are severely penalized for exercising that right. After a conviction at trial, defendants face longer sentences than those who plead guilty. Often referred to as the “trial penalty,” the sentence after exercising their constitutional right to trial is exponentially greater.

The Office of Pardon Attorney is one of the only ways for those convicted of a federal crime to obtain relief after appeals have been exhausted. This office determines which cases get reviewed by the deputy attorney general, White House counsel, and ultimately the president. If this gatekeeper brings the perspective and experience that comes with being a public defender, redemption is possible. Oyer has worked in close proximity to the people and families who are most impacted by the criminal legal system, and the actors within that system.

If the new pardon attorney has a willingness to listen to criminal justice advocates, to introduce transparency into the review process, and to dislodge the backlog of applications, there is a chance that clemency is moving in the right direction. Next, we need the deputy attorney general, White House counsel, and President Biden to listen and heed the guidance of someone who understands the criminal legal system from the perspective of those it harms. The appointment of a former public defender is a promising start.

What you can do:Tell Governors: Embrace Clemency As A Pathway To RedemptionAdd your name

The Roe Draft Signals a Potential New Front in the Already-Raging War Against the LGBTQ Community

Many commentators in the LGBTQ space are talking about how the draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization might affect various constitutional rights that the LGBTQ community has secured over decades of advocacy and struggle. A common theme is that “they’re coming for us next,” after abortion. But make no mistake, the war against LGBTQ people in America is already raging. While the Dobbs draft opinion may preview a new front in that war (and I fear it does), attacks against LGBTQ people — especially youth — have been growing in intensity for several years and have already reached a fever pitch. The fight is upon us and we need to mobilize now.

First, even before the leak of the Dobbs draft, we were in the midst of the most aggressive attack on LGBTQ people — and especially trans youth — that our country has ever seen. Over 300 anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed in state legislatures just in 2022, and over 20 new anti-trans bills have become law over the past three years. Those new laws restrict access to health care, bar trans people from restrooms, prevent any discussion of the existence of LGB or trans people in schools, bar trans youth from participating in sports, or prevent updating government-issued ID documents to reflect our actual identities.

We have even returned to a place where the primary narrative from our opponents is that LGBTQ people are child molesters, or “groomers” in today’s parlance. That was the central theme of Anita Bryant’s successful 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal Miami-Dade County’s sexual orientation non-discrimination ordinance. Many of us thought that America had moved beyond thinking of LGBTQ people as child molesters, but Texas’ governor has declared that parents who follow doctor’s advice to provide necessary health care for their trans kids are child abusers, and Florida has restricted discussion of the existence of gay or trans people in schools to prevent the supposed recruitment of kids to be LGBTQ. We are going backwards on LGBTQ acceptance and understanding, not forwards. This didn’t start with the Dobbs draft.

Second, the Dobbs draft does represent a new front in the ongoing anti-LGBTQ war, and its impact (if this draft becomes the decision of the court) would be immediate. That’s because the restrictions on abortion that the Dobbs draft would authorize are a direct attack on LGBTQ people, who need access to abortion health care just like many cisgender and heterosexual people do. In the wake of a Dobbs decision that follows the draft, many states will ban abortion outright or start enforcing bans that are already on the books, and that will cause intense suffering for many people, including many LGBTQ people. The Dobbs draft is terrible news for everyone in America who can get pregnant, and for everyone who loves them and values their independence and autonomy. This is our fight now.

But what’s scary about the Dobbs draft is not just what it does directly, but also what it previews as the next steps the court may take in the future. To be sure, the draft opinion says specifically that its holding is limited to what it calls the unique context of abortion, and it declares that the ruling does not undermine other fundamental rights cases, including both Lawrence (the right to form intimate relationships) and Obergefell (the freedom to marry for same-sex couples). But it’s hard to take much comfort in that statement.

If and when the legal challenges to Obergefell and Lawrence come, we will cite those lines in Dobbs and our side will win in the lower federal courts. But when and if the issues get to this Supreme Court, I fear that the calming statements in the Dobbs draft will make little difference.

If the Supreme Court approaches the Obergefell question or the Lawrence question the same way it approaches the abortion question in the Dobbs draft, both of those rights are in danger. In the Dobbs draft, SCOTUS focused on whether there was a history of protecting the right to abortion in America, and refused to frame the right more broadly, as a right of personal autonomy and of control over one’s own body. That narrow framing led to the overruling of Roe.

If the court asks the same crabbed question in the context of marriage equality or the right to form intimate relationships — is there a long history and tradition of protecting specifically the right of same-sex couples to marry or of the right of same-sex couples to be intimate — the extreme conservative majority on this court could easily answer that question “no.” Never mind that the Supreme Court itself said in Lawrence and in Obergefell that that framing of the right was too narrow; choosing to narrow the scope of a long-established right is precisely what the Dobbs draft does. It’s why I’m very concerned about what this draft opinion could mean for the freedom to marry and the right to form intimate relationships.

So let’s put the Dobbs draft in perspective — it represents a new and profoundly disturbing front in the current attack on LGBTQ people in America, but it’s just one aspect of a war that is already well underway. That’s not an effort to downplay the significance of this draft opinion for LGBTQ people, it just means we all need to wake up to the fact that we are already deep in the fight for our lives.

What you can do:Take the Pledge: Support Trans Youth NowTake the pledge

45 Years of Defending Liberty

When Stephen Pevar joined the ACLU in 1976, he was one of only 15 national staff attorneys. Over the next 45 years, he filed more than 175 cases — winning or settling more than 90 percent of them — as the organization expanded to a workforce that spans every state, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, with more than 75 staff attorneys at the national office alone. Last month, he retired as one of the ACLU’s longest-serving staff members.

Following his departure, we sat down with Stephen to discuss big wins and memorable moments from his decades-long career — almost half the ACLU’s 102-year existence — spearheading our Indigenous justice work across the country.

How did you get your start as an ACLU attorney?

My legal career began in 1971 as a Legal Aid attorney on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where I worked for nearly four years. During that time, I was selected by the ACLU to become a member of the ACLU’s Indian Rights Committee (IRC), which had just been formed to develop a proposed policy for the ACLU on tribal rights. I got to know the ACLU and the ACLU got to know me from my work on the IRC. When a position in the Mountain States Offices (MSO) opened in 1976, I applied for it and was hired. At the MSO, I was the only staff attorney — national or affiliate — in an 11-state region. It was a great job because I was able to take a lot of different cases in those 11 states. In 2000, the national office closed the MSO because all 11 states now had staff attorneys, and I soon joined the newly-created Racial Justice Program at national as a staff attorney under the leadership of Dennis Parker.

What issues have you worked on?

I’ve worked on a huge range of issues, including free speech, separation of church and state, prisoners’ rights, voting rights, Indigenous justice, and Title IX parity, among others.

What was your first case? What are some of your most memorable cases?

My first ACLU case was a racial justice case. Two months after I started my job, I filed a Title VIII housing discrimination case in Minot, North Dakota on behalf of a Black woman denied housing on the basis of race. The defendants settled the case and our client received damages.

A few months later, I filed two more cases, both totally different from the first case and from each other. One of them, U.S. ex rel. Means v. Solem, was a free speech case on behalf of Indian activist Russell Means. The issue was whether he had a free speech right to engage in a political demonstration despite being on bail. The court ruled in our favor. In the other, Cardiff v. Bismarck Pub. Sch. Dist., the North Dakota Supreme Court held that a “free public education” as guaranteed in the state constitution prohibited a school district from charging parents for their children’s school books. Both cases established important principles in two different states involving key civil liberties issues (freedom of speech, and access to a free and equal education).

Can you name a few of your most significant wins?

I had more than 100 wins that I consider significant. In fact, more than 100 of my cases resulted in reported decisions. As the only ACLU attorney in 11 states, I was very selective (and turned down 500 cases for every one I took). The ones I took were significant.

I also handled intake from those 11 states. I received hundreds of letters every year seeking ACLU assistance, and I answered all of them. In many instances, I sent letters to government officials on behalf of the client when litigation wasn’t possible for our office. Much of what I accomplished was as a result of those letters, in addition to my litigation.

Also, I sued nearly a third of the jails in Wyoming and in Idaho. Many counties in those states opted to improve their jails, rather than be sued and pay attorneys’ fees. These lawsuits resulted in an overhaul of the jail system in those states. Similarly, I sued school districts in Idaho to half the practice of distributing bibles to students and, after winning the first several cases, the practice came to a halt. As for individual cases, here are a few:

● Board of Pardons v. Allen (1987): This was the one case I argued in the Supreme Court. The court ruled in our favor, holding that a Montana parole statute created a protected liberty interest in release on parole and, therefore, prisoners denied parole must be notified of the reasons they were denied.

● Missouri Knights of the KKK v. Kansas City (1989): In this case, the court ruled that the KKK had a free speech right to appear on a municipal public access cable channel on the same basis as everyone else. When Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman wrote “In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action” in 1992, they featured this case and discussed my role in it.

● Ridgeway v. Montana High School Athletic Ass’n. (1990): This was the first statewide class action Title IX case that sought (and obtained) substantial equality in high school athletics for girls. This case changed high school athletic programs throughout the state and guaranteed parity.

● Spiering v. City of Madison (1994): Tom Spiering was a career law enforcement officer who was fired after he blew the whistle on a corrupt supervisor. After a four-day trial, the court found in his favor on free speech grounds. In an earlier free speech case in the same court, Wolf v. City of Aberdeen, the court found that five employees of the city’s fire department had been punished in violation of the First Amendment for speaking on a matter of public concern.

● Yellowbear v. Lampert (2014) and Miller v. Murphy (2008): Both cases were filed against officials at the Wyoming State Penitentiary and both were settled favorably. In Yellowbear, we obtained a consent decree requiring prison officials to allow a Native American religious adherent to possess up to four eagle feathers in his cell for use in religious ceremonies. In Miller, we obtained a consent decree requiring prison officials to accommodate the needs of Muslim prisoners to Halal meals and to pray at certain times without forfeiting their meals.

● Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik (2015): In this case, the district court found that state welfare officials had repeatedly violated the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Due Process Clause, resulting in the unlawful removal of 823 American Indian children from their families, and ordered systemic changes. The remedial order was reversed on appeal, however, on abstention grounds. Despite the reversal, state welfare officials continue to implement all of the procedures that the district court held were required by federal law.

How have you seen the ACLU evolve during your 45-year career?

By far the greatest evolution is one of size. The ACLU is probably 50 times larger than when I started working here, both at national and in the affiliates. As a result, we can undertake far more work than we previously could. Another evolution is that the ACLU has become a mainstream and well-known organization, generally respected even by those who disagree with us. That wasn’t the case when I started. At first, few people knew about the ACLU and many who did, despised us. Lastly, the ACLU now litigates in many areas we didn’t previously (or didn’t do nearly as much as today).

What do you see the ACLU looking like in the next 45 years? What works lies ahead?

I hope the ACLU continues to grow at the same rate we have grown during the past 45 years, and that we continue to take many types of cases. One type of case we need to undertake far more frequently than we do is Indigenous justice cases. I would like to see us do far more work in this area.

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What to Know About the Leaked Supreme Court Abortion Draft Opinion, and What’s Next

On Monday night, Politico published a leaked draft of the highly anticipated Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The draft majority opinion, penned by Justice Samuel Alito, overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which has been on the books for nearly 50 years and has ensured abortion is a protected federal constitutional right. If this draft decision is issued as the official decision, it would be unprecedented and would take away a fundamental right for millions of people, and the language used calls into question far more than abortion access. For now, this is just a draft opinion, and the actual Supreme Court decision is expected by the end of June.

Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, joined us on At Liberty to break down the nuts and bolts of this opinion and what lies ahead. This is a condensed version of that conversation, and you can listen to the full version here.

https://soundcloud.com/aclu/special-edition-strategies-for-the-end-of-roe

ACLU: This draft opinion sent shockwaves throughout the country. Can you bring us up to speed on what our readers should know about the leak? How did you react when you first read it?

Brigitte Amiri: The draft opinion essentially says that the Constitution no longer protects abortion, and if it is adopted as the official court opinion, the consequences will be devastating. If this opinion is issued by the court, abortion will be banned in about half the states. When it first hit the airwaves, I was in disbelief, and I was skeptical of whether it was authentic or not. But we have been preparing for the possibility that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe just based on the questions that the justices asked in this case during oral arguments. So in that sense, it’s not a total shock that this is possibly where the court is going.

ACLU: Before we get into the details about the opinion, let’s reiterate that this is just a draft. How can people support folks who need access to abortion care now?

BA: Yes, it’s just a draft; this isn’t an opinion. People who have abortion appointments scheduled today should go to their appointments and call your local clinic if you have questions. This doesn’t change the law now. If you want to express your support, I would say tap into your local reproductive rights, justice, and health community and find out how you can be involved. Donate to your local abortion fund, and to practical support organizations that make sure people can access care. These are all critically important parts of the infrastructure that exist to make sure people can get care, and that infrastructure needs to be invested in. You can also contact your local representatives, and your senators. This is the time to let elected officials know where you stand on this issue and how important it is to you.

ACLU: Back to the draft opinion: Let’s recap ​​Dobbs. Where did the case originate, and what did the oral arguments in December hint about what was to come?

BA: This case was brought by our friends at the Center for Reproductive Rights — they represent the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The case centered around whether the state can ban abortion after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. The State of Mississippi asked the court not just to uphold the 15-week ban, but to consider the constitutionality of abortion in general, and whether the Constitution protects abortion at all. That was a direct invitation from the state to overturn Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The Supreme Court’s choice to even consider this very broad question that has been settled for decades was really disconcerting.

ACLU: If the draft opinion is adopted by the court, what happens next?

BA: Roughly half of the states will ban abortion almost immediately, and half the states will continue to allow abortion. But it’s important to understand that the long-term agenda of abortion opponents doesn’t end with overturning Roe. What they want is a nationwide ban on abortion. So if you’re in a state like New York or California, where you believe you will have access to abortion even if Roe is overturned, that is true in the short term. But the plan from abortion opponents is to continue to push for a nationwide ban, so that could change.

ACLU: What is the ACLU doing, and what will we do if Roe is indeed overturned?

BA: On the litigation side, we’ve been holding the line in the states where we can by bringing defensive cases. But the federal courts are becoming more and more hostile, and if we lose the federal constitutional right to abortion entirely, these courts will not be the avenue to protect abortion. But we’re also working at the policy level in the states, where legislation is moving to protect access in states that don’t have abortion restrictions, so that people who travel to those states are able to get care quickly, easily, without hurdles and without obstacles. We’re also working on telehealth, and removing restrictions on access to medication abortion. We’re looking to state constitutions, some of which provide greater protection for abortion access than the federal Constitution.

ACLU: In Alito’s draft opinion, he writes that Roe was wrong from the start, saying that it has nothing to do with the original intent of the Constitution. Aren’t there many other examples of landmark decisions from the Supreme Court that don’t arise from the original context within which the Constitution was written? What else will be impacted if we go down this path?

BA: If this is really where the Supreme Court is headed — that you only have a constitutional right if it was contemplated by white men in the 1700s — then there’s a whole host of issues that we work on here and that people care about in our country that are at risk, like access to contraception and LGBTQ rights. These are rights that will most directly impact women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. And we’ve already seen legislators talking about how Griswold v. Connecticut should be overturned — that’s the case that provides constitutional protection for the right to access contraception. Arguments about privacy in Griswold paved the way for same-sex marriage.These cases are interconnected, so all of these rights are implicated.

ACLU: Justice Alito also refers to a 13th Century treatise that designates abortion as homicide, and relies on medieval common law in which women are likened to chattel. Although some of this language may be softened before the final opinion does come out, it is hard not to see this as a window into the logic of a sitting justice that has a lot of power and is in the majority. How do we move forward while knowing that these are the perspectives of an institution that deems itself nonpolitical?

BA: Right, so we know these are Justice Alito’s views, and maybe this is ultimately written as a concurrence, rather than the majority opinion. But it is really terrifying that someone who is so powerful holds these views about people’s roles in society and women’s roles in society. So, how do we move forward? It’s not going to be the courts that are going to make the change. We’ve been able to stop a lot of really bad things from happening through our litigation. But in order to create long-standing, really fundamental change, it’s going to look different. We need to be looking to people who are organizing within the ACLU, our affiliates, and their coalitions on the ground, and looking to the local reproductive justice and health organizations that are already doing this work. Roe didn’t mean that all people had abortion access, and there were already people living in parts of the country without it. So as devastating as this moment is, we need to take it and really think about our vision. What do we want? Not just access to abortion and contraception for all, but also the ability to have children and to parent in the way that people see fit in a world free from police violence, and with infrastructure in our communities to care for those children. This is something that we all should be thinking about, and we really are not looking to the courts to make that change. We have to look within our communities and think about the long-term sustainability of reproductive freedom in this country.

ACLU: What can people do now to support your work, the work of your colleagues, and abortion access more broadly?

BA: We have actions on our website that people can take on all of these issues. Check out your local ACLU, and check out your local reproductive rights and justice organizations to see how you can get involved, how you can support abortion funds, how you can volunteer at the local clinic. What’s also incredibly important right now are voting rights. The vast majority of people in this country support access to abortion. But because of the diminished power in people’s votes through gerrymandering and other voting restrictions, the scaling back of the Voting Rights Act, the work that our colleagues are doing in the voting rights arena is also critically important. The right to vote has been so watered down because of all of the restrictions that have been put in place, and that we’re fighting against as well. So all of these issues that we work on at the ACLU are very connected. For any piece of this that people are interested in, there’s a way to get involved.

What you can do:Defend Abortion Access for AllSend your message

ICE Program Foments Abuse, Hatred, and Fear — and Makes Us All Less Safe

In 2017, Gerardo Martinez-Morales was driving to the doctor’s office when he was pulled over by sheriff’s deputies in Galveston County, Tex.. One week later, the father of four and grandfather of three who lived in the U.S. for more than two decades was deported to Mexico. The reason given for the traffic stop that caused him to be torn from his family of U.S. citizens? A broken taillight.

Under Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) 287(g) program, such travesties are all too common. The 287(g) program — named after a section of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act — sounds wonky, but is relatively simple and terribly life-altering in practice: It allows local law enforcement agencies, primarily sheriffs, to carry out certain duties normally reserved for federal ICE agents, such as investigating a person’s immigration status and holding people for transfer to ICE detention. The result is that even the most minor of interactions with local law enforcement can lead to detention, deportation, and separation from their families.

License to Abuse: How ICE's 287(g) Program Empowers Racist Sheriffs

In this new ACLU report, research reveals that racial profiling, poor jail conditions and other civil rights violations are widespread among the 142 state and local law enforcement agencies ICE describes as participants in the 287(g) program as of April 2022.


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In a new research report, the ACLU found that dozens of sheriff partners in the 287(g) program have records of racism, abuse, and violence. Our analysis reveals that the majority of local partners have documented incidents of civil rights violations and other abuses. Our report makes clear that xenophobia is at the very heart of the program, which expanded five-fold under the anti-immigrant efforts of the Trump administration.

President Biden has continued to partner with sheriffs who entered into agreements with the Trump administration, despite promising to end them, and even though these partnerships undermine his administration’s stated priorities for criminal justice reform and immigrants’ rights.

https://infogram.com/1p6kvpjq2jerjza5gdx6qr5xq2c3rj5wjjv?live

While 287(g) is intended to be narrow in scope and proponents portray it as oriented towards deporting “criminals,” in practice, many sheriffs and their deputies wield their federally-delegated authorities quite widely. For years, immigrant rights activists have documented racial profiling endemic to the program: Sheriff’s deputies look for any excuse to detain somebody they suspect of having a questionable immigration status for the purposes of funneling them into deportation.

Would Gerardo Martinez-Morales have been arrested for a “broken taillight” if he weren’t brown-skinned in an overwhelmingly white county policed by a sheriff who had pursued a 287(g) agreement and spoken publicly about the need to punish undocumented immigrants? Would the sheriff have pursued a 287(g) agreement in the first place if he weren’t on a mission to target immigrants?

After all, joining the program is voluntary under federal law and comes at local taxpayer expense with no measurable benefits. Studies suggest 287(g) undermines both public safety and public health as trust in local agencies plummets and fear rises. To better understand why a sheriff would still pursue a 287(g) agreement, it helps to look at the history of the program.

Nearly two-thirds of 287(g) partners have records of racial profiling and other civil rights abuses.

When Obama’s presidency ended, there were 34 remaining 287(g) agreements nationwide following several racial profiling investigations by the Department of Justice, including one that led to the termination of the 287(g) agreement in Alamance County, North Carolina. The Alamance County sheriff demanded deputies “bring me some Mexicans.” This led to incidents like that of a Latinx man who was arrested and later deported for “providing the wrong address for the crime scene” after he suffered a gunshot wound, or a Latinx women whose three young children were left alone for eight hours on the side of the highway at night after she was arrested and then deported for driving without a license.

Under the Trump administration, the program grew nearly five-fold in a few short years, reaching an all-time high of 152 participating agencies. Among the new agreements was one with the same sheriff in Alamance County.

This is no coincidence. Our investigation shows that the Trump administration actively recruited sheriffs to join the 287(g) program as part of the administration’s larger anti-immigrant agenda, and at the expense of civil rights.

As the ACLU report makes clear, xenophobia and rights abuses run rampant in the program. We find that 59 percent of 287(g) sheriffs have records of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and over half have expressly advocated inhumane federal immigration policies, in some cases while vowing to disobey any federal directives they disagree with. Nearly two-thirds of 287(g) partners have records of racial profiling and other civil rights abuses, while more than three-quarters operate detention facilities with documented patterns of abuse and inhumane conditions.

https://infogram.com/1pl63752m5zp9zfqmj1nwwmqz0f3k7721v?live

With a record this abysmal, there is no salvaging 287(g). As a candidate, President Biden pledged to “aggressively limit” 287(g), including by terminating all agreements entered under the Trump administration. But over a year into his administration, he has only ended one agreement.

Will President Biden make good on this promise to disentangle federal immigration enforcement from the everyday work of local law enforcement officers? Or will he continue to work with the very officials who perpetrate abuses, target immigrant communities, and undermine civil rights? The 287(g) program is a broken, racist relic of the past; it must be ended.

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Mississippi Voters Are Fighting for Fair Representation on the State’s Highest Court

Black voters in Mississippi deserve full and fair opportunities for representation at the highest level. And the next generation of Black lawyers and civic leaders deserve full and fair opportunities to serve at the highest level. That must include the opportunity to become a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court. It’s far past time that the Supreme Court districts that Mississippi uses to elect its Supreme Court reflect the diversity of the state’s population, rather than diminishing the voice of Black voters. That’s why the ACLU and ACLU of Mississippi, along with our co-counsel, have filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Black civic leaders challenging Mississippi’s Supreme Court districts.

Mississippi’s population is almost 40 percent Black — a greater proportion than any other state in the nation. Yet in the entire history of Mississippi, there have been a total of only four Black justices on the state’s nine-member Supreme Court. In fact, there has never been more than one Black justice on that court at any given time. The last time a Black justice was elected to the Mississippi Supreme Court in a contested election was in 2004, nearly 20 years ago. The reason for this gross inequality is that Mississippi employs Supreme Court district boundaries that dilute the voting strength of Black Mississippians in state Supreme Court elections. The challenged districts violate the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. Mississippi must do better.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act makes it illegal for states to draw district lines that water down the voting strength of voters from minority racial groups. That is exactly what Mississippi’s Supreme Court election district lines do. Black voters comprise a majority of the population in certain regions of the state, such as the Mississippi Delta and the state capital of Jackson, but Black voters do not comprise a majority in any of the three Supreme Court districts as currently drawn.

Moreover, voting is heavily polarized on the basis of race across Mississippi. That high degree of polarization means that candidates chosen by Black voters are typically defeated by white bloc voting in the current Supreme Court districts. By splitting Black voters across the three Supreme Court districts in a way that doesn’t allow them to be the majority in any of those districts, the challenged scheme provides Black voters with little opportunity (and certainly not an equal opportunity) to elect candidates of choice to the state Supreme Court. That is classic vote dilution.

Additionally, Mississippi’s Supreme Court districts are unconstitutional. These districts have not been changed since 1987 — before some of the plaintiffs in our case were even born. Indeed, they are not very different from districts used by Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s during the era of Jim Crow. Also, Mississippi does not appear to have ever precleared the districts (that is, obtained approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court) as it was required to do under the Voting Rights Act. It passed them even though Black lawmakers strongly objected. The state and its policymakers cannot help but see the discriminatory, vote dilutive effects of those districts. These and other unusual circumstances show that racial discrimination was and is a motivating factor in the state’s persistent maintenance of these vote dilutive districts. Such improper motivations violate the Constitution.

Thankfully, the remedy to these violations of law is simple: Draw new district lines for the first time since 1987. In fact, only modest changes to the district lines for the state’s Supreme Court districts would be sufficient to make Supreme Court District 1 majority-Black and to provide Black voters with the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. This change would also keep the state’s overall districting scheme for Supreme Court elections intact, while also ensuring that those elections comply with federal law and allow Black Mississippians an opportunity to elect candidates of choice.

Black Mississippians should not have to participate in critical elections on a grossly uneven playing field. That is wrong and erodes the trust so many people have in our democracy and our public institutions. In contrast, fair representation and multi-racial democracy shore up the integrity of our institutions and benefit all Mississippians.

This case is about Mississippi’s future — about whether the next generation of Black lawyers and civic leaders in Mississippi will have fully equal opportunities to obtain representation and to serve at the highest level, including as a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Mississippi should redraw its Supreme Court district lines now. Federal law requires nothing less.

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Trump’s Remain in Mexico Policy is at the Supreme Court. Here’s What's at Stake.

This week the Supreme Court will hear a case that could entrench the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces people seeking asylum to await their court dates in dangerous conditions in Mexico. The Remain in Mexico Policy, misleadingly dubbed the “Migrant Protection Protocols” created a humanitarian disaster at the border and has been the subject of ACLU lawsuits since it was first implemented in 2019.

President Biden made a campaign promise to end Remain in Mexico, recognizing the grave harm it subjects people seeking asylum to. Biden followed through on his promise and terminated the policy. But Texas and Missouri sued, and a federal Texas district court judge ordered the federal government to restart the program.

The Biden administration has tried multiple times to end the policy, including by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block the order on an emergency basis – a move the ACLU supported in an amicus brief – but the Court declined to do so. The Biden administration has been forced to resume the policy while litigation continues.

Biden v. Trump has now made its way up to the Supreme Court to be heard on the merits. Here is what’s at stake.

The ability of a president to undo the policies of a former administration

The lower court decision under review by the Supreme Court would effectively keep the Trump administration’s shameful Remain in Mexico policy in place indefinitely, even though the policy did not exist under multiple administrations (including the Trump Administration before 2019).

This decision is contrary to a fundamental principle of a democracy: A new administration, selected by the people, should be empowered to reject its predecessor’s policies and adopt those it believes are in the public interest. The government is, of course, constrained by statutes, including the requirement to provide reasoning for its policy decisions. But by upending the normal rules that govern agency decisions and unjustifiably locking in Trump’s policy, the lower court overstepped its role as a neutral enforcer of the rules.

The anti-democratic implications of that holding are deeply troubling, and the Supreme Court must reject it.

Whether the government is required to detain all asylum seekers

In ordering the Biden administration to resume the Remain in Mexico policy, the lower courts held that immigration law limits the federal government to only two options when people seek asylum at the border: detain them or forcibly return them to Mexico before their hearing. Since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) lacks capacity to detain all people seeking asylum, the judge reasoned that the only choice would be to send them to Mexico while their cases proceed.

This is a patently false choice. Congress has stipulated that DHS has broad power to avoid unnecessarily detaining people and to release people to their networks of care while their immigration cases proceed. In fact, all presidential administrations have exercised broad discretion to release people rather than restricting DHS to two binary choices – including the Trump administration itself.

The lives of asylum seekers

Most importantly, at stake is whether the U.S. will continue to be a country that allows people fleeing persecution to seek safety inside its borders. Remain in Mexico, and other related policies, like Title 42, which has shut down access to asylum at the southern border for over two years under the guise of public health, are attempts to dismantle longstanding U.S. asylum policy that uphold our commitment to international human rights norms.

During the two years the policy was in effect under Trump, Human Rights First documented over 1,540 reported cases of kidnappings, murder, torture, rape, and other forms of violence against asylum seekers returned to Mexico. U.S. and Mexican authorities have failed to establish adequate housing options or to provide access to medical care and work, leaving people vulnerable to transnational cartels who prey on migrants. Black and LGBTQ+ asylum seekers returned to Mexico have faced particularly severe risks.

If the Supreme Court prevents the Biden administration from ending Remain in Mexico, it will enshrine a new legacy for the United States – a legacy of turning its back on international commitments and sending people directly into harm’s way.

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The Supreme Court Must Protect Students From School-Sponsored Prayer | American Civil Liberties Union

On-duty public-school staff may not pray with students. Period. That’s been the law under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause for more than half a century. Even the Trump administration—hardly a bastion of church-state separation—agreed, proclaiming in its school-prayer guidance that “school employees are prohibited by the First Amendment from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students.” But that could soon change if the Supreme Court rules in favor of a public-school football coach who demanded the right to lead his players in prayer at the 50-yard-line at the end of each game.

This morning, the court is hearing oral arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which Joseph Kennedy, a former high school football coach, claims that school officials in Bremerton, Washington violated his religious-exercise and free-speech rights by placing him on administrative leave for repeatedly leading on-field prayers with his team at the close of each football game.

The coach portrays the case as involving his right to personal, silent prayer. But as a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge pointed out in ruling against the coach, Kennedy and his attorneys have repeatedly misrepresented the facts of the case, spinning a “false” and “deceitful narrative.” In truth, the school offered — and Kennedy rejected — several religious accommodations that would have allowed him to engage in private, post-game prayer. Instead, he insisted on continuing his unconstitutional practice of praying with students.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the separation of religion and government is especially important in our public schools, which must equally serve students of all faiths, and those of none. When public-school officials demonstrably favor some faiths over others or promote religious doctrine, it sends a message of exclusion to students who don’t follow the preferred faith. And students are especially vulnerable to coercion, both subtle and overt, when subjected to school-sponsored prayer or other official religious exercise.

A football coach at a Bremerton School District public high school leads student athletes in a prayer following a football game. A red arrow is juxtaposed on the image pointing to the coach.

A football coach at a Bremerton School District public high school leads student athletes in a prayer following a football game. A red arrow is juxtaposed on the image pointing to the coach.

Indeed, several of Coach Kennedy’s players participated in his prayers only because they felt pressured to do so. As one amicus brief — filed on behalf of former professional football players and former college athletes — explains, coaches wield great power and influence over their athletes. Many players are naturally inclined to view their coaches as authority figures and to obey their explicit and implicit commands. Athletes understandably seek the approval of their coaches, who control nearly all aspects of their participation and playing time. For some high school students, coaches may be instrumental in their ability to obtain collegiate athletic scholarships. Under the gaze of their coaches, fellow team members, the audience, and the media who gathered to cover Kennedy’s highly publicized prayer, few students would feel comfortable opting out of the post-game prayer huddle.

The ACLU strongly supports the free exercise of religion and free speech. Earlier this year, for example, we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, arguing that the City of Boston unconstitutionally denied a Christian group’s request to fly, for a single hour, a flag featuring a cross on a city flagpole. The city denied the request even though it had intentionally opened up the flagpole as a public forum and consistently allowed dozens of other groups to temporarily raise their flags. The flag in that case, we explained, was private speech and would be understood as such by the community, and therefore had to be accommodated.

Not so in Bremerton. Kennedy conceded that he delivered his prayers while he was on the job, explaining to the press that the prayers were, in his view, “helping these kids be better people.” Even if the school disclaims any endorsement, a student who witnesses the coach lead his team in prayer would still perceive it as bearing the school’s stamp of approval. And anyone familiar with the coach-athlete relationship would immediately understand just how coercive that practice is. In barring him from praying with students in this setting, while offering him many ways to pray privately, school officials did only what was required of them by the First Amendment: They protected students’ religious freedom by shielding them from school-sponsored religious exercise. Now, it’s the Supreme Court’s turn to do the same.

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The Law & Order Reboot Could Not Come at a Worse Time for Criminal Law Reform

You might think you know a lot about the criminal justice system in America. Perhaps you have a vision of what happens at arrest, during police questioning, when bail is set, or during trial. You’ve heard the familiar Miranda warnings on TV and seen lawyers spouting objections in courtroom scenes. However, if you are like many people, whose views on the criminal legal process are primarily formed by TV and movies, you may have a woefully rosy picture of how accused people are treated in thousands of courtrooms across the country every day.

A huge culprit in misshaping Americans’ views of their local criminal legal systems is the hit show Law & Order, the longest-running law enforcement series on television, which is now back on air for its 21st season. While unquestionably a successful entertainment franchise, Law & Order and shows like it have done incredible damage to the fight for a truly fair and effective criminal justice system. This is because a vast segment of the American public is getting their information about the legal system from shows like Law & Order, and in many critically-important ways, the fiction of the show is nothing like reality.

For example, take bail. On TV, we watch people proceed swiftly to a real hearing following an arrest, in front of a judge, with a lawyer representing them. Arguments get made about whether the person poses a flight risk or an unmanageable danger to others if released. An individualized assessment is then made.

In reality, in much of the country, someone arrested and accused of a crime has their bail set without any hearing whatsoever: Bail is predetermined by charge without consideration of a person’s finances or other factors. Elsewhere, bail is set by a police officer, judge, or clerk behind closed doors. Even in places that hold some sort of bail hearing, the proceeding typically lasts only a few seconds, and people accused of crimes often have no lawyer to help them make arguments, preserve other rights (such as the right against self-incrimination), or to negotiate with the prosecutor. The result is a massive system of wealth-based and unjustified incarceration. This decision point influences the entire remainder of a person’s case, as those who cannot pay bail are incarcerated, separated from their families, left to prepare their defense from jail, and housed in often-abysmal, sometimes deadly conditions.

On TV, judges apply the law meticulously. In reality, many judges express overt bias, act rashly, and are condescending and cruel to criminal defendants. As a lawyer investigating practices on behalf of the ACLU, it is not uncommon for me to observe knee-jerk reactions from judges based on one element of the case, or to see judges show obvious preference to wealthier white defendants over low-income people of color. But members of the public rarely observe judges in action. When local and national journalism accurately covers judicial conduct, members of the public are often shocked by the way local judicial officers wield power.

On Law & Order, about 60 percent of cases go to trial. In reality, only about 2 percent of people have a criminal trial, largely because of the prevalent role of coercive plea bargaining, pressures of pretrial detention, and the lopsided balance of power between the prosecution and defense.

The perception driven by TV crime dramas that police are primarily investigating serious, violent crimes and are largely accurate in who they accuse is incredibly damaging. In reality, violent crimes only represent about 4 percent of law enforcement’s scope, and clearance rates — the number of reported crimes matched to an arrest — are under 50 percent for violent crimes and under 17 percent for property crimes.

Now, we are witnessing a misguided backlash to much-overdue criminal law reforms in America. Political opportunists are peddling suggestive, inaccurate narratives about crime, safety, and fairness. The truth is that harsh criminal law policies do not make communities safer, and reforms are not the reason for tragic instances of interpersonal violence. To understand why reforms that seek alternatives to incarceration continue to be desperately needed, it is essential that voters understand what their elected judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement chiefs actually do when they are entrusted to uphold the constitutional rights of everyone in the system.

In the meantime, it behooves the writers and producers of much-streamed shows to portray these issues with more nuance and accuracy — including by hiring defense attorneys and formerly-incarcerated people, and not just prosecutors and cops to consult in their writers’ rooms. Creators of TV crime dramas must recognize and take responsibility for the tremendous impact they have on the way jurors and voters perceive our justice system.

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Documents Reveal Confusion and Lack of Training in Texas Execution

As Texas seeks to execute Carl Buntion today and Melissa Lucio next week, it is worth reflecting on the grave and irreversible failures that occurred when the state executed Quintin Jones on May 19, 2021. For the first time in its history — and in violation of a federal court’s directive and the Texas Administrative Code — Texas excluded the media from witnessing the state’s execution of Quintin Jones. In the months that followed, Texas executed two additional people without providing any assurance that the underlying dysfunction causing errors at Mr. Jones’ execution were addressed. This is particularly concerning given that Texas has executed far more people than any other state and has botched numerous executions.

The First Amendment guarantees the public and the press have a right to observe executions. Media access to executions is a critical form of public oversight as the government exerts its power to end a human life. Consistent with Texas policy, two reporters travelled to the Huntsville Unit, where executions take place, to witness the execution of Mr. Jones in May 2021. The reporters waited across the street from the execution chamber, but Texas inexplicably excluded them from witnessing the execution.

Immediately after this fundamental and unconstitutional breakdown in procedure, Texas vowed to investigate what went wrong. The investigation resulted in the issuance of a perfunctory statement asserting without evidence that “extensive training” was conducted prior to the execution, but that issues still occurred. In June 2021, the ACLU submitted a request under the Texas Public Information Act for documents related to the errors at Mr. Jones’ execution and the investigation that followed. After six months of stonewalling during which time Texas executed two more people, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) released troubling new documents. These documents reveal a department woefully unprepared to carry out an execution, due to confusion and lack of training.

The documents describe interviews with staff who reported “a lot of unwritten procedures,” confusion about whether there were any written guidelines or protocols about executions, a lack of a “clear understanding of [their] role,” and staff who were “not trained.” An interview with one individual who appears to have participated in previous executions revealed that “to [his] knowledge, there are no written guidelines/protocols about the execution itself. He is aware of a document titled Execution Procedure-April 2021, however he stated he has not read it thoroughly.” Multiple documents describe a picture of confusion as a result of “all the changes,” including changes in the execution process. Taken together, these documents reveal a global lack of understanding about execution procedures generally.

The documents, which TDCJ tried for months to withhold, make clear that the department is not prepared to carry out another execution in line with Texas policy or the Constitution. While excluding media from an execution is easily noticeable, other errors may be less apparent. When the state makes a mistake in executing a person, those mistakes are unfixable and inexcusable. There is no room for error when the final moments of a person’s life are on the line.

There are countless reasons to oppose executions: the failure to protect innocent lives, the systemic racial bias in the application of the death penalty, and prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases are just a few examples. Mr. Buntion, scheduled to be executed today, is 78-years-old and has medical vulnerabilities. Ms. Lucio, scheduled to be executed next week, has a strong case for her innocence and has the support of her surviving children. The TDCJ should not move forward with these executions. Texas’ mismanagement in carrying out past executions is yet another reason the state should abandon the cruel practice of capital punishment.

 

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A Student’s Journey: Fighting for Education Rights While in Prison

Young people with disabilities have a legal right to a free and appropriate public education, even when they are incarcerated. But for years, the educational needs of high school students in New Jersey’s state prisons were not being met.

That’s changing now, and Brian Y. is a big reason why.

Brian Y. entered state prison before he turned 18. He knew he had a right to an education inside, and he knew that as a student with disabilities, he was entitled to special education and related services.

He also knew his rights were being violated. So he took action.

The lawsuit, Adam X. et al. v. New Jersey Department of Corrections and Department of Education et al., was initiated five years ago by three students — Adam X., Brian Y., and Casey Z. (pseudonyms) — who alleged they were denied special education in prison. Thanks to their calls for change, the students’ legal team, including the ACLU of New Jersey Foundation, Disability Rights Advocates, and Proskauer Rose LLP, spent years investigating and litigating the case, which was certified by the federal District Court for the District of New Jersey as a class action in July 2021.

Their work was rewarded: On March 3, 2022, the District Court granted final approval of a settlement agreement that will usher in new policies to guarantee that students with disabilities in New Jersey prisons receive the special education and related services they are entitled to. The settlement also provides opportunities for make-up services and funds for those who were deprived special education in prison in the past, and ensures meaningful implementation of the new policies through a five-year monitoring plan.

Estimates suggest over 400 people may be impacted by the settlement — Brian Y. himself will receive $32,000 in compensatory education funds as part of the agreement.

We spoke with Brian Y., now 24 years old, about his education in prison and how his action resulted in a landmark settlement that will change the lives of young people denied services in prison. He talked about the experience in his own words.

This interview, which originally appeared on the ACLU of New Jersey’s blog, has been edited for clarity.

ACLU-NJ: What made you decide to take action to get an equal education?

Brian Y: I knew from my time in regular school that what was happening wasn’t normal. But all of this was my first time in jail or prison, so I thought that it was the norm: A tenth grader and a seventh grader all in the same class.

I was getting frustrated. I’d think to myself: “How is it that we have a teacher who doesn’t know the answer to certain questions?”

I brought this up with [an advocate]. They were shocked. So, they introduced me to the ACLU-NJ. And from there, the doors opened.

ACLU-NJ: What were the school materials you had like?

Brian Y: We didn’t even have textbooks. They had been recycled for years and were so outdated. The majority of the whole prison was working on the same lessons because it was the only thing they had available.

The teachers are supposed to be there for us, to teach us, but it was a jail mindset, just babysitting — they’d slide worksheets under the door.

ACLU-NJ: When you were in administrative segregation, you received instruction in a literal cage. What was it like to be educated in an environment like that?

Brian Y: I was so young. I don’t even know how to describe it. I felt like an animal.

I’m sitting in a room right now looking at a square table. Now, imagine us in a room. It’s you and the table, and everything around you is three stories high. Everyone is looking down at you.

And you’re in the middle, with lights on you, and a cage all around you. People outside are screaming and yelling. You’re trying to focus — but how can you? You can’t focus.

I remember being in the cage constantly jumping from the sounds. You could put your hand down and unintentionally make a loud noise. You’d hear people folding and stepping on the milk and juice cartons to make popping sounds. You would hear the metal keys. Everything was a loud noise. It was painful. It’s unreal, still thinking about it now. It was sad.

ACLU-NJ: What are your thoughts about missing out on educational services that you should have received?

Brian Y: The seven years I spent in the Department of Corrections, I was cheated out of education, and not learning the things I would have been if I was getting the right education. It’s going to have a huge impact on my life. You know everyone tells you, “Pay attention in school, you’re going to need it.” And here I am now saying the same thing.

ACLU-NJ: You were critical to the development of this case. What was it like to help your lawyers develop the complaint and prepare the suit?

Brian Y: It was exciting being a part of the lawsuit. It was unbelievable. It was like out of a movie. I was like an undercover lawyer. I’d ask questions in the classroom to find out what kinds of services other students were getting — or really, what services they weren’t.

Imagine being locked up at that age and having another inmate coming up to you and asking: “Do you have an IEP? What grade are you in? Why are you doing the same packet I’m doing? Do you get extra tutoring?”

A lot of the work I did to investigate took place when I was put in solitary confinement, taking notes on whatever small pieces of paper I had so I could use them later. Even helping other inmates to fill out forms for legal help: if they couldn’t mail it out themselves, I would put a stamp on it and make sure it got out.

Everyone I talked to or interviewed had a different story, and I was excited to see what impact they could have. It was a challenge for me — to see what I could uncover, or what role the next person I could get involved would have.

ACLU-NJ: After feeling like your concerns were ignored for so long, what was it like after you and your lawyers initiated the suit?

Brian Y: It felt amazing. Like 21 Jump Street, where an investigation blows up, and you laugh about it afterward.

I knew first when the lawsuit was announced and it was covered in the news, because all the teachers started finding out and losing their mind.

Deep down inside, I’m like, “I’m the man, I did this work. I made it happen!” I felt very overwhelmed and joyful.

ACLU-NJ: What did it feel like when you signed the settlement agreement, with your signature on the same document as the Department of Corrections commissioner?

Brian Y: Since getting out, I became a business owner. But signing my name to the changes the Department of Corrections would make felt even more powerful than turning the key to my shop for the first time.

There are so many people inside who have been there for years but didn’t have a way to change anything. Being so young and managing to make the change that we did is amazing.

ACLU-NJ: What differences do you think we’ll see from before the settlement and after?

Brian Y: That’s a good question. And a scary question.

With the settlement and the changes that are coming, there will be new requirements, a monitor to make sure they’re carried out, and all that. It’s scary, because there’s so much that needs to be done. Even when the lawsuit first broke — a lot of people weren’t ready for it.

But it’s good. Because you’re going to see the teachers who want to help, the ones who love education — they’re the ones who are going to stay. Those are the folks going to their boss saying, “We’re not doing enough to teach people.”

For the inmates who want to turn their lives around, they’re going to love this. There are so many people who want to learn but we were limited. The hope is for this lawsuit to lift those barriers. We weren’t getting special education services, let alone basic education or vocational training that we wanted. After this, things will hopefully change to give people the tools we need to be successful.

ACLU-NJ: How does it feel now, knowing you were a teenager when you started down this journey?

Brian Y: When I was so young in adult prison, I felt like my life was over. But with the lawsuit, the energy of it all, it helped me get through life and have a better outlook: I had a vision for the bigger picture, the hopes and goals of this case. Now, with this settlement, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much.

Knowing you’re the reason so many students in this predicament are going to have so much opportunity: It definitely means a lot. Especially coming from the bottom — coming up in a troubled environment, with early run-ins — making your voice heard and having a voice means a lot.

When I talk about it, it means so much to me, I really hold back tears. Sometimes I think to myself, “How did I get through it?” To deal with all of it, to become more powerful, to make change like that — it’s so good. Even with the mistakes I made in life, I feel good about who I truly am.

Coming from all the way from the beginning of this case, to now standing up and shouting — having a voice! shouting! — it means a lot. I try to laugh a lot. As I’m talking about it, it really means a lot to me. And the laughing is really holding back tears.

ACLU-NJ: What does it mean to know that you made it possible for people to get an education closer to the one they deserve?

Brian Y: To me this means my voice was heard. And for the other students in the class action, our voices were heard. Luckily, I was able to initiate positive change. I know this is going to break barriers, and it’s going to continue moving in the right direction, and this is just the start.

And I know there are teachers in there who want to do real lesson plans, want to really teach. I feel like I made a difference not just for students who want to learn but also for teachers who didn’t have a voice and wanted to teach.

ACLU-NJ: The settlement gives you and others in your circumstances opportunities to pursue education and training to compensate for what you were denied. What does that mean to you personally?

Brian Y: The compensatory education funds mean a lot. I had never had that help, but I’m being helped now. It’s kind of late, in terms of the Department of Corrections trying to make up for an education that we missed at such an important age, but I feel incredibly proud to finally have these opportunities and to know I was part of that. The people who care about me encourage me to stick with my passion, so I never gave up. I was even contacting technical colleges.

But when we first talked about the settlement, more than the comp ed, it was about the DOC changes for me — so other people didn’t have to go through what I did, so they can get proper education.

ACLU-NJ: Already more than 90 people have submitted compensatory education forms as part of the program created for class members. Are you proud of that?

Brian Y: Like I said — I like to challenge myself now because of the ACLU and everyone else. Ninety — that’s still short for us, because I know there’s a lot more than that who are eligible. This is just the beginning but we’re going to get there.

ACLU-NJ: Did you ever think about not taking action to fix things?

Brian Y: With this whole case, I could have just kept going with the flow, saying to myself this is normal. People could have said, “You’re in tenth grade doing seventh grade work – that’s all good, you’re guaranteed to pass.” But I couldn’t — it’s not right.

I never asked myself what if I didn’t get involved with the suit, because I’m so glad I did. But if I didn’t — it’d be the same now as it was then: A lot of people missing out on education. Every step of the way just made me want to fight harder, work more. We made our voices heard for ourselves and for other people who wanted to help. I was so committed, and I knew what was at stake.

ACLU-NJ: Five years later, what lessons do you take away from this?

Brian Y: From when we first started the class action to now — five years doesn’t feel like five years. But to get things done right, it takes time. To get it done right and to see real change. The investigation process, the manpower, everything, it was well due. Well due. I just roll with the punches. I know it’s not a simple change. This is a big, big change. It’s only right that it takes its time and goes through the process so we can get it RIGHT. We want it to be 100.

Class Members may continue to submit Compensatory Education Forms for up to two years. Although the notice period is complete, Class Members and their loved ones may still reach out to Class Counsel at prisoneducation@aclu-nj.org or prisoneducation@dralegal.org or by calling 973-854-1700.

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Michigan Lawmakers Must Protect the Rights of Children and Join the Global Consensus

As of April 15, 2022, I have spent 12,075 days behind bars for a 1989 crime I was convicted of committing at age 15. It would be the first and only arrest during my childhood. Since then, I have languished behind bars for more than two-thirds of my life, living in a veritable penal tomb.

I am one of 363 people in Michigan sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for crimes committed as children — sometimes called “juvenile lifers.” I am also the first person in Berrien County, Michigan to be charged under a 1988 law that empowered prosecutors to automatically transfer children to be tried and sentenced in adult court. Michigan ranks first in the nation as the state with the largest number of juvenile lifers.

My arrest occurred during the height of America’s tough-on-crime era when children of color were being demonized as “superpredators” and states were making it easier to impose mandatory LWOP sentences on kids that are tantamount to death-by-incarceration. More than three decades later, I am a husband, proud father to three amazing daughters, and a grandfather. I am also a journalist and social justice advocate who works at the intersection of decarceration, racial justice, and conflict resolution. This month I will turn 49 years old — my 34th birthday in prison.

The author at 15 years old.

Like many people convicted of a crime as a child, I have accomplished a lot during my time in prison. But outdated and inhumane sentencing policies still embraced by states like Michigan continue to prevent people like me from getting a second chance to contribute all we have to offer to the world beyond bars. Now, Michigan lawmakers have a chance to change that.

Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a historic report that analyzed the practice of sentencing children to life without parole, and called on the United States to “prohibit and abolish the sentence of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles” in Michigan and across the country. The report was issued in response to a petition filed in 2006 by the ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan, and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute on behalf of 32 people sentenced to life without parole in Michigan.

In its scathing analysis of Michigan’s treatment of juvenile lifers, the IACHR found “the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole … incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty ratified by the United States.”

The United States is the only country in the world that still sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There is a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, and that they are entitled to special protection and treatment by the criminal legal system — yet the United States doesn’t do so and remains a shameful outlier.

Recognizing the inhumanity of this treatment, 25 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed life-without-parole sentences for children. In nine other states, no one is serving a juvenile LWOP sentence. But in 16 states, these sentences are still legal.

Michigan, which allows a child over the age of 13 to be sentenced to life without parole, is the worst offender. It’s a stain on our state’s reputation, and the mark of a recalcitrant throw-away mentality. It is also at odds with the growing majority of states in the country that have embraced the concepts of redemption and second chances — and the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in 2012 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children violate the Eighth Amendment.

Michigan lawmakers now have a chance to bring our state in line with global standards for the treatment of children convicted of serious crimes. Bills were introduced this year in both the state’s House and Senate that would ban life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. These bills (House Bills 5941-5944 and Senate Bills 848-851) all have bipartisan support, reflecting the growing consensus that second chances are imperative, especially for young people. By passing these bills, lawmakers can signal their support for rehabilitation and the eventual reintegration into society of children the state once sentenced to die in prison.

While the IACHR lacks the authority to enforce its recommendation on the U.S., its decision on LWOP sentences for children can and should influence the way Michigan and other states treat children convicted of crimes by highlighting the panoply of human rights violations they’ve been subjected to as a consequence of extreme sentences. The commission’s analysis can also be presented in courts and used to inform lawmakers why LWOP sentences for children are inhumane and misguided.

The IACHR’s report should also prompt the U.S. Senate to finally ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the world’s most widely ratified treaty. The U.S. remains the only country in the world that hasn’t ratified it, the most comprehensive universal human rights treaty on children’s rights. If ratified, the CRC would prohibit life-without-parole sentences for children in all 50 states.

Michigan lawmakers don’t need another independent international commission or court ruling to tell them they are standing on the wrong side of history. It is past time for Michigan and the U.S. to catch up to the global community when it comes to protecting the rights of children and recognizing their inherent dignity. Abandoning the draconian practice of condemning children to die in prison will reflect the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a civilized society.

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Calling 911 Shouldn’t Lead to an Eviction

Last week, the federal government took a major step toward ending policies that disproportionately result in the eviction of domestic violence survivors, families of color, and people with disabilities — simply because they place a call to 911 for help.

The latest reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) guarantees the right to report 911 emergencies from one’s home. This means that cities cannot require or threaten evictions or lease non-renewals, impose criminal penalties or fines, refuse to issue rental licenses, or close properties when residents exercise their rights to seek assistance.

The legislation responds to municipal policies that are widespread but usually operate with minimal community awareness or oversight. Cities have enacted local “nuisance” ordinances or adopted “crime-free” housing programs that punish residents who call 911 or who simply live in properties where criminal activities occur, regardless of whether the tenant is at fault. Police departments are typically charged with enforcing these policies, often pressuring landlords to evict families or bear heavy fines or other consequences. They generally provide no notice or process for tenants to contest alleged violations. Tenants find themselves faced with a horrible dilemma: stop seeking help or risk losing their homes.

Research shows that these policies particularly harm communities of color, low-income households, people with disabilities, and domestic violence survivors. For example, a study of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s ordinance found that properties in Black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed “nuisances,” that property owners took steps to discourage tenants from calling 911, and that nearly one third of all nuisance citations arose from domestic violence incidents, resulting in survivors’ evictions. Another study of the effect of Ohio nuisance ordinances showed similar results on survivors of domestic violence, people of color, and people with disabilities.

An ACLU report found that domestic violence made up the single largest category of ordinance enforcement in Binghamton and Fulton, New York and that in Binghamton, landlords’ most common response to a nuisance property warning was pursuing eviction against the tenants who were the subject of police response. And an investigation in Peoria, Illinois revealed that the city concentrated its nuisance ordinance enforcement against buildings with predominantly Black tenants in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

For the last decade, the ACLU, with its state affiliates and many partners, have fought these policies. We have challenged them in court, bringing multiple federal lawsuits on behalf of domestic violence survivors as well as organizations advocating for fair housing and people of color, asserting First Amendment, due process, and Fair Housing Act claims. We also have advocated for state legislation protecting residents from these local policies, enacting new laws in 10 states, as well as calling on numerous cities to refuse to enact or to repeal existing ordinances and programs. Our work succeeded in eliminating many of these harmful policies and procuring relief for tenants who experienced their devastating effects. But these efforts have tackled the issue city by city, state by state.

With the reauthorization of VAWA, all local or state governments that receive federal funding through the Community Development Block Grant Program, which disbursed more than $3 billion last year, must now comply with the new protections once they become effective on October 1. Residents whose rights are violated will also be able to seek remedies, and all governmental grantees will be required to report any policies they have in place to HUD and certify the steps they will take to come into compliance.

Home is not just an address. It is central to all of life’s opportunities — what services, health care, jobs, schools, and transportation people can access, and where we build community with other families. For survivors of domestic violence, secure housing is key to leading lives of dignity. The enactment of these federal protections will ensure that residents can seek emergency assistance without fear of losing their homes.

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Three Artists Explain and Visualize What Black Joy Means to Them

We asked three artists to help us visualize what Black joy could look like after we achieve systemic equality — the joy that can exist in an inclusive and equitable world. Learn more about each artist and their work below.

https://infogram.com/1pd3yyg3jneplnumv1nzgwjk2mckg65g7vv?live

Octavia Ink

Black joy is freedom. Black joy is radical. The Black joy to come from systemic equality would change the world. For my personal journey as an artist I’ve been given opportunities I never imagined with the help for my community, family, and friends. Black joy leads to liberation and the freedom of self expression. With this type of community and access to resources I’m starting to paint my canvas; I get to paint my future. Every Black artist deserves that freedom. Finding your identity comes when one is given access to knowledge without boundaries.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSmdNcl5Tjk

Octavia “Ink” Mingerink is a local illustrator, printmaker, and graphic designer. She believes in art as a form of expression, using her art to represent those who are underrepresented while bringing social justice issues to the forefront. As an illustrator, Octavia is driven and inspired by Black women. She’s set out to push forward those who are severely underrepresented and even excluded from the art industry. She wants to see women that look like her at the helm and she reflects that in her art. Constantly utilizing bright colors and dynamic movement in each piece, Octavia loves to incorporate flowers throughout her work. Pushing the message that we should give ourselves our flowers and celebrate growth and joy.

Eliana Rodgers

With this piece, I wanted to focus on the act of freedom. Freedom to laugh, freedom to dance, freedom to create, freedom to thrive in a world without policies and social structures attempting to curtail — even end — your very existence. Within this freedom lives unbridled joy, happiness from your head to your toes, flowing into the earth and into those around you. I see my figure as the embodiment of this joy, a joy so unrestricted and celebrated that it radiates out from her physical being and nourishes the world around her.

Black people are resilient — we’ve created so much already. It is truly intoxicating to think about what we could do with full access and opportunity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSGTqVOzpKs

Eliana Rodgers is a Black biracial illustrator and textile artist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her illustrative work, she creates worlds full of beauty and goods, bright colors and optimism, and individuals who celebrate humanity in all forms. Her illustrations can be found in various national publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. She recently illustrated her first children’s picture book, “Ray Ray Paints a Self-Portrait,” about a biracial kindergarten girl who learns to love her curly hair. Eliana graduated from Columbia University in 2018 with a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts.

Thaddeus Coates

Visualizing Black joy after systemic equality, for me as a Black creative, means to free ourselves from societal norms and preconceived notions about blackness. Blackness is not a monolith, we are many things, much more than our agony and much more than our pain. We are light, we are the embodiment of excellence. It is important to know that everyday is Black history; we are cultivating a legacy that lives beyond 28 days, we are Black 24/7 and 25/8, we are monumental and it is important to pour into us and we have poured into so many. Black joy is eternal forever and ever. We are infinite.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBhPnpMuf2g

Thaddeus aka Hippy Potter is a NYC-based artist who creates bright and thought-provoking illustrations centered around amplifying Black voices while also focusing on diverse representation, Black queer joy and other important topics. Using vibrant technicolor hues and expressive shapes. His inspiring compositions simultaneously evoke powerful and playful emotions. A common thread of optimism runs strongly throughout his work creating empowering and personal moments between the artist and his viewers. Blending the aesthetics of 80s-era Japanese City Pop and Future Funk with the spirit of 90s-era cartoons, Thaddeus has shaped his own style of illustration that is filled with energy and personality.

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