Civil Rights Forum - Resources Taking Action 101 - Saturday, March 26, 2017
JUSTICE IN AMERICA ISSUE The recent call by Donald Trump to restore “Law and Order” and his push for “Tough on Crime” policies - even though the current data reveals that crime is near historic lows - is terrifying, especially in minority communities. Historically, talk about restoring law and order and being tough on crime have been “dog whistles” to those who believe that people of color pose a threat to the safety of their communities.
Trump stated during his campaign that he supports raising mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, along with using “stop and frisk” policies more frequently. Mandatory lengthy minimum sentences for drug offenses are a major cause of the mass incarceration of people of color, especially African-Americans.
The appointment of former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General has provided a blueprint to the direction in which the nation is headed. Sessions has opposed legislation designed to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and to give judges more discretion in sentencing. This comes at a time when trust between minority communities and the police nationwide is at an all-time low due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. These disparities range from racial profiling by police and the use of excessive force to the mass incarceration of people of color.
NEW JIM CROW In 2016, the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. ranked Iowa fourth in the nation for incarcerating the most African-Americans per capita. The Project states that Iowa has 11.1 African-American inmates for every Caucasian inmate. Iowa actually made progress from the previous year, however, when the Project ranked it third in the nation. Illinois fares somewhat better, with 8.8 African-American inmates for every Caucasian. Nationwide, the Project predicts that at the current rate of incarceration, one in three African-American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. The ethnic disparities are not as dramatic as racial disparities. Nevertheless there are disparities. Latinos are incarcerated 1.4 times as often as non-Hispanic whites, the Project reports. One in six Latinos born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. The mass incarceration of people of color is a resurgence of the “Jim Crow” system of control that progressive Americans fought so hard to eliminate in the 1960s. The mass incarceration of people of color is largely due to disparities in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses, as well as racially biased policing, and it is considered to be the most important civil rights issue of the day. Because of the emphasis on restoring law and order through even more aggressive policing and by increasing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, this issue is even more urgent under the present administration.
IMPACT The impact, both nationwide and locally, of a conscious or unconscious racially-biased criminal justice system is astounding. Certainly, fatalities have occurred across the nation in communities when people of color have been stopped by the police. The mistrust of the police by citizens additionally prevents cooperation in the community to solve crimes, and it prevents young children from seeing police officers as friends to whom they can turn for help. Certainly, the long sentences young African-American males have served for low-level, nonviolent crimes rob them of their liberty. In addition, the costs of mass incarceration have widened an already large wealth gap between Caucasians and African-Americans. African- Americans have lost wealth not only while being incarcerated for unfairly long sentences but also after they are released, due to the inability of ex-felons to obtain jobs. Imprisonment also contributes to the destruction of families, leaving many children living in fatherless homes. Of course, there is a dramatic spike in poverty levels for children, as their single mothers struggle to support them. Finally, even if you discount the injustice of the system, mass incarceration comes at an astronomical cost. It is estimated that the annual cost to taxpayers to house an inmate is $31,500 or $86.35 per day.
LEGISLATION Bipartisan federal legislation was introduced in Congress in 2015 entitled Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. The Act reduces some of the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. That legislation has stalled, and it is doubtful in the current atmosphere that it will go forward. Iowa, however, did pass House File 2064 in May 2016, effective July 1, 2016, which grants judges greater discretion in determining sentencing for second degree robbery offenses and for nonviolent drug offenses. Illinois has also taken some positive steps to make criminal justice reforms. Legislation is a good first step, but further reforms are needed. There is a need for more education in the community to educate residents about their rights and responsibilities when interacting with police. There is also a need for active community policing, which involves police interacting socially with the community to build positive relationships. Police should also visit schools to mentor students and to interact with them on a non-adversarial basis.
ACTION Progressive Action for the Common Good (PACG) is hosting a panel discussion of the criminal justice system, In the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave on Tuesday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m. at the Rogalski Center at St. Ambrose University. This will be an in-depth examination of the issues from the viewpoint of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and community members. It is an opportunity to ask questions and to become more fully informed on the topic. Audience members can then contact their legislators – local, state and federal – to advocate for reforms. They can also educate their friends and neighbors. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady, and local and state NAACP chapters all support criminal justice reform.
TRANSGENDER RIGHTS FOR STUDENTS ISSUE Transgender issues are not just about which bathrooms to use. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1978 provides that no person shall be excluded on the basis of sex, or be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in, any educational program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance. The Title IX prohibition of sex discrimination in education has been interpreted as including protections against discrimination based upon gender identity.
There are an estimated 1.4 million transgendered adults, or 0.6 percent of the population. It is an emerging civil rights issue, as more and more people – and people at younger ages -- are dealing with what is technically known as gender dysmorphia. The term means that they identify themselves as male or female based on their own sense of self, rather than on the sex listed on their birth certificates. (Some babies are born with ambiguous genitalia and assigned to one or the other gender; other children come to the realization later.) The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a recent statement: “Transgendered children are already at increased risk for violence, bullying, harassment and suicide. They may be more prone to depression and engaging in self-harm. Policies excluding transgendered youth from facilities consistent with their gender identity have detrimental effects on their physical and mental health, safety and well-being.”
The ACLU represents a transgendered student, Gavin Grimm, 17, of Gloucester County, Va., who had been using the boys’ restroom at his high school. After other parents complained, the school board ruled that he had to use a private, unisex bathroom instead. The ACLU filed suit under Title IX.
“It’s basically saying, you can’t use the restroom with the rest of the kids,” Grimm told NPR. “The alternative facility was a unisex bathroom. I’m not unisex. I’m a boy.”
The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to have heard oral arguments in the Grimm case March 28, but the case will not be heard. Some large tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, IBM and Microsoft, had signed on to an amicus brief filed by the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay rights. A total of 53 companies also joined the brief, echoing the economic opposition by businesses to an anti-gay rights bill passed by North Carolina. (Efforts are underway to repeal it.) In the meantime, other cases are making their way to the Supreme Court to determine whether or not Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination includes gender identity discrimination.
The Obama administration issued guidance to schools across the country in May 2016 that required them to permit transgendered students to use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity. The guidance further provides that transgendered students have the right to use changing rooms and locker rooms and to participate on sports teams in accordance with their gender identity.
The guidance explains that schools can provide private changing areas upon request, but those changing areas are to be also provided to all students upon request, regardless of the student’s gender identity. The guidance additionally provided that schools cannot force transgendered students to use the private changing areas. The guidance further provides that schools are to act promptly to address any sexual harassment claims that involve the gender identity of a student.
Earlier, a federal judge in Texas placed a temporary hold on the Obama guidance, based upon his finding that the federal government failed to provide states with enough notice and opportunity for comment before issuing the guidance. The judge further opined that the guidance carried the effect of law and contradicted legislative and regulatory texts. The guidance is not law, but it could affect several cases before the courts, including the Grimm case.
The Trump administration has rescinded the guidance. The Administration says that the right for individual transgendered students to use bathroom and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity should be left up to states and school districts to interpret federal civil rights laws.
The new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, had agreed that the protections should be left in place, but she was overruled by the new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Sessions has long been an opponent of expanding LGBT rights. His action revealed that there will be little support from him in fighting for the rights of transgendered students.
IMPACT The impact of rescinding the protections for transgendered students is enormous. Schools have asked for guidance on this issue in an effort to provide a safe and inclusive environment for their students. Certainly transgendered students in the past have experienced bullying, harassment and a feeling of isolation in their schools where they should be protected and included.
Both Iowa and Illinois have laws that protect transgendered students, not just in restrooms and locker rooms and sports teams, but also on issues of privacy, bullying and harassment.
ACTION There is a need for more information on the rights of transgendered students, as well as LGBT students. Voters need to educate themselves and others, especially if there is an effort to repeal protections.
VOTER ID LAWS ISSUE As the law now stands in Iowa and Illinois, voters can register to vote up to and including Election Day. This is a more liberal policy than that of many states. However, many progressives believe that uniform laws allowing same-day registration should be adopted in all states. They cite the example of Oregon, which provides that every citizen is automatically registered on his/her 18th birthday.
President Trump has alleged that three to five million people voted illegally in his 2016 election. No one, including Trump, has produced any evidence of this. In fact, in-person voter fraud is practically non-existent. Out of 1.6 million votes cast in Iowa in 2016, the Iowa Secretary of State says, there were only 10 cases of potential fraud. All of them turned out to be voter errors, which lacked the required intent to make their actions a crime.
Opponents of easier voting say the one-in-a-million chance of a fraudulent vote requires a strict voter ID law. This argument ignores the fact that ID is required to register, and registration is required before voting. In Iowa, a voter’s identification is checked through a series of data bases before a voter card is issued.
When a registered voter goes to the polls, election officials already have his or her name, address, age, gender and party preference, if any. A signature is on file which can be compared. The name is checked off the voter list before the person casts a ballot. Theoretically, it is possible than an imposter could know the details of a particular voter and to know ahead of time that that person would not be voting. If he or she did show up at the polls, the first vote would be challenged.
Supporters of ID requirements are correct that voter rolls in some states list the names of people who have moved or are dead. Pew Research says that 24 million voter registrations nationwide are no longer valid or are “significantly inaccurate.” Another 1.8 million are deceased, according to Pew, and 2.7 million are registered in more than one place (including Donald Trump’s children).
However, there is not a problem unless and until a dead person votes. The Iowa legislature is currently considering a draconian bill to restrict voting rights. It would eliminate an hour of voting on Election Day (ending 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.), cut off requests for absentee ballots 11 days before the election, and do away with party-line voting. Voters would have to vote separately for each office.
Most importantly, it would eliminate same-day registration and require all registered voters to show a state- or military-issued photograph ID a second time in order to vote. Poll workers would be told they can challenge IDs if they do not think the picture resembles the voter.
The Iowa Secretary of State estimates the new law would cost $1 million to implement.
IMPACT Opponents of the Voter ID law say it is aimed at discouraging certain groups of voters from participating, particularly people of color, disabled people, older people, low-income citizens and anyone else who lacks the means to get a driver’s license. Older voters and disabled people, who do not drive or never did, would have to have help to get to the DMV offices to obtain an official ID. (In Rock Island County, for example, there are only two DMV facilities; one is in Silvis and one in Aledo.)
Those most inconvenienced by the new law are groups which tend to vote Democratic. A conservative group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has drawn up model bills to restrict voting rights, which are then introduced in states controlled entirely by Republicans.
ACTION In Iowa, voters can contact their state legislators to protest changes in the law governing elections. At www.legis.iowa.gov, constituents can easily find the name of their state senators and representatives by typing in their home address. Most legislators list a phone number.