Free From Jail, Imprisoned by Debt

This opinion piece by Libero Della Piana was written for OtherWords and appeared in Truthout.

At 36, Marcus White has spent half of his life in prison. Today he’s no longer behind bars, but now he’s imprisoned by something else: debt.

When White was sentenced, he was saddled with $5,800 in criminal fines and fees. By the time he was released, he was stunned to learn that with interest, his debt had grown to $15,000 — and continues to grow even now.

That debt isn’t just a drag on White’s finances. It’s a drag on his right to vote.

White’s not alone. More than 50 years after the 24th Amendment made poll taxes unconstitutional in the United States, formerly incarcerated people in at least 30 states are still barred from voting because they’re unable to fully pay their court-related fines and fees.

“I have completely changed my life and have been given a fresh start,” White said recently at a conference in Washington D.C. “Voting wasn’t important to me before, but now I want to be a productive citizen in every way… I want a voice in the process.”

“I am accountable for everything I have done,” he said. “But the interest rate on my fines is crazy.”

New research by my organization, the Alliance for a Just Society, shows that millions of people — including an estimated 1.5 million African Americans — are blocked from voting because they can’t afford their criminal debt.

That debt starts at sentencing and can grow at interest rates of 12 percent or more while inmates serve their sentences. It continues to grow after they’re released and face the numerous barriers to finding work and housing.

Some states explicitly require that all court-imposed fees are paid before voting rights are restored. Others are more indirect, requiring the completion of probation or parole — with the payment of fees and fines a condition of completing parole. The laws vary, but the effects are the same.

On the other hand, former offenders with wealthier family or friends, or a savings account, are able to quickly regain their voting rights. The result is a two-tiered system that restores voting rights to an affluent elite and leaves the rest — the majority, in fact — without a vote.

The reality of racism in the United States and the criminalization of poverty means that black people and other people of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and locked up for longer than whites. Blacks are also less likely to regain their right to vote once they’re released.

That racial disparity bears a grim resemblance to the poll taxes imposed throughout the South after the Civil War, which were intended to keep newly freed black people from exercising their civil rights.

The problem has worsened since 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states — including several in the old Confederacy — have since rushed to impose restrictive voter ID laws and other impediments to voting. But debt as a barrier to voting remains a little-known reality.

The clearest solution is to automatically restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, and to register everyone immediately after they complete their sentence. Alternately, lawmakers could repeal all criminal disenfranchisement. Short of that, states should simply remove the payment of court debts as a condition for voting.

Many of us take voting for granted, especially in a presidential election year.

Voting means having a say in the policies that affect your life and community. It’s an opportunity to elect those who will represent your values. Voting is actively participating in a better future.

Voting is hope. And the ability to pay should never be a requirement for that.

Libero Della Piana, leads racial justice and criminalization initiatives for the Alliance for a Just Society, where he is the digital director.
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LeeAnn Hall: What’s at Stake in the Supreme Court Today?

Today the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in United States v. Texas, the case that will decide whether President Obama’s 2014 executive actions on immigration were constitutional.

What’s at stake? Millions of immigrants and their families could see relief and move forward with their lives free from the fear of deportation if the Supreme Court shows moral leadership and allows the President’s immigration actions to go ahead.

The Alliance for a Just Society is joining with National People’s Action today in a promise to keep fighting for immigration relief so that all families can stay together. We will keep fighting against the politics of hate.

Will you join us and pledge to fight for families?

Take the I Will Fight for Families Pledge and we’ll keep you updated on what happens in the Supreme Court and ways you can take action to help keep families together.

Thousands of people are rallying, fasting, and taking action today to tell the Supreme Court to do the right thing and allow the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to proceed.

Texas and 25 other states sued the federal government over the executive actions. The relief programs have been stalled in the courts ever since, stopping millions of undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from applying to receive work permits and gain temporary protection from deportation. We expect to hear a Supreme Court decision in June.

Join us to fight for families inside and outside the courts. Sign our pledge and we’ll keep you informed.

We will continue to defend the President’s immigration initiatives, we will fight for lasting immigration reform, a pathway to citizenship, and to keep families together.


LeeAnn Hall
Executive Director
Alliance for a Just Society

Community Organizing Groups Applaud FHFA Principal Reduction Policy

For Immediate Release

April 15, 2016
Kathy Mulady, 206-992-8787
Jacob Swenson-Lengyel,  312-316-3973

Community Organizing Groups Applaud FHFA Principal Reduction Policy

Yesterday, the Fair Housing Finance Agency announced a principal reduction modification program that will help up to 33,000 borrowers. In response, Alliance for a Just Society and National People’s Action released the following statement:
“The Alliance for a Just Society and National People’s Action applaud the Fair Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) for beginning to provide relief to thousands of families trapped in underwater mortgages.
These homeowners were left owing more than their houses were worth when the housing market crashed almost ten years ago due to the reckless behavior of the country’s big banks.
Since the crash, the Alliance for a Just Society, National People’s Action, their affiliates and allies have mobilized families around the country to call on the FHFA to provide justice for homeowners left in the lurch.
Because of these efforts, FHFA is now making principal reduction available to approximately 33,000 homeowners, helping them get back on their feet and assisting communities struggling to recover from the ongoing devastation of the financial crisis.
While many more families need relief, and while the help will come too late for too many, the action represents a significant step forward in families’ fight for real solutions. We will continue to urge the FHFA Secretary Mel Watt and the Obama Administration to build on this progress.” 

# # #

National People’s Action is a network of 29 grassroots organizations in 18 states working together to advance a racial and economic justice agenda for a new economy and true democracy.

Alliance for a Just Society is a national policy, research and organizing network that focuses on social, economic and racial justice.

Colleges Squeezing Out Less Profitable Home State Students

A change in funding at state colleges and universities is starting to change who makes up the student body. In-state students, even with perfect grades and impressive lists of extra-curricular activities, are being passed over in favor of out-of-state students willing to pay three times the tuition.

A scathing report last month accused the California State University system of admitting too many out-of-state students, and reducing opportunities for California residents to attend college in their own state.

When students move into states and squeeze out local students looking for an affordable education, access to the middle class, and increased opportunities—all promises of a public university – are lost.

California isn’t alone.

As college costs and student debt increase, schools nationwide are looking farther and farther away to fill the student body with higher paying out-of-state students to help sustain operations.

When colleges look out of state to fund their education, they go against their mission as a public good. Tuition-dependent schools are in essence privatized, relying on students rather than public funding to provide an education.

In Oregon, the state legislature, following a national trend since the recession, decreased higher education funding by 33.5 percent between 2008 and 2015. It’s the sixth highest cut in the country. Per student, the state reduced spending 32 percent between 2002 and 2012.

Without funding from the state, schools now rely increasingly on tuition for their operating budgets. In 2001, Oregon’s schools received 47 percent of their funding from the state; today the state provides 19 percent. To make up the difference, schools have shifted their funding from 45 percent from tuition to 73 percent.

This year, the University of Oregon’s student body is 35 percent out-of-state students and 14 percent international students. The remaining 51 percent are Oregon residents, much lower than the average of 73 percent at Oregon’s other public universities.

It isn’t just that the University of Oregon is so much more appealing to more students outside of Oregon. The University of Oregon needs out-of-state students for its bottom line – out-of-state students pay three times the tuition as Oregonians.

Twenty percent of the student body is from California alone. The school hired two full time recruiters based in California to encourage students to come to University of Oregon and pay full tuition.

Having more Californians in Eugene is not a problem – the problem, as in California, is that fewer are able to attend college in their home state. Between 2005 and 2009, the share of less lucrative Oregonians making up the freshman classes at the University of Oregon dropped from 79 percent to 59 percent.

Oregon and California aren’t alone in this trend. Out-of-state students outnumber in-state students at the University of Alabama, the University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa.

When colleges look out of state to fund their education, they go against their mission as a public good. Tuition-dependent schools are in essence privatized, relying on students rather than public funding to provide an education.

Gerrymandered Out of a Voice and a Vote

As the election season picks up steam, the matter of voting rights is making its way back into the mainstream media. Voters need to have their voices, and their votes counted. However, many of the newest congressional districts have been drawn in a way that limits the voice and voting power of people of color, which has repercussions for our democracy beyond the violation of personal rights.

Gerrymandering is the deliberate manipulation of district lines in favor of one party or class. It’s partially to blame for our current political climate. Gerrymandering not only creates extreme polarization and weakens the votes of moderates and minorities, it also reinforces racial stereotyping and housing segregation. Politicians capitalize on this disparity by creating fewer districts with high concentrations of minorities to erode representative power of people of color at both the state and federal level.

In a high-stakes election year it’s especially critical to ensure our elections are equally representative and fair. Gerrymandering conflicts with these principals and creates systematic barriers that must be addressed and remedied.

As David Wasserman, a leading political analyst and editor observed, “In the process of quarantining Democrats, Republicans effectively purged millions of minority voters from their own districts, drawing themselves into safe, lily-white strongholds with an average Republican House district that is 75 percent white.”

While the 1965 Voting Rights Act mandates increased representation for people of color, those in power are using the law it to justify gerrymandering as the only way to maintain racial fairness and representation. The Courts have found this justification faulty.

In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that two districts in North Carolina are unconstitutional based on racial gerrymandering and must be redrawn for the November 2016 elections.

While North Carolina’s presidential primary still went forward in March , the congressional primary has been moved to June 7. The Supreme Court denied North Carolina’s request for a stay, effectively enforcing the lower court’s ruling to begin the process of redrawing the congressional map. The ruling illustrates the court’s likelihood of following previous decisions, such as those against Alabama and Virginia last year.

Those rulings confirmed that most of the districts in those states were blatantly racialized and violated section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – that districts cannot be based on “any predetermined or fixed demographic information.” These rulings were made when Justice Scalia still remained on the Court, and although his death has shifted the dynamics of the bench, it seems likely that the lower courts ruling will be upheld.

The effects of gerrymandering are visible and have long-term consequences for our country and the sanctity of our democratic process. Whether it is the gridlock in Congress, the extreme rhetoric from both sides of the aisle, or the lack of political power of people of color already in Congress, the effects are being felt with few options for recourse.

The current congressional map makes it difficult for Democrats to regain control of the House, as evidenced in 2012 when Democrats won 1.4 million more votes nationally, yet Republicans won 33 more seats in the House of Representatives.

And while all but three of the African-Americans in the House are Democrats, they are bound to stay part of the minority party with fewer high-ranking committee appointments because of their ‘safe’ districts and the tendency for party leaders to “dole out plum assignments and opportunities to carry legislation to members facing competitive elections” All of these are consequences of politicians’ clear conflict of interest when drawing their own district lines.

Potential tools to address this issue have been implemented in 23 states in varying degrees across the country. States have established three types of independent commissions. Thirteen states give their commission primary responsibility for drawing new districts, five have an advisory commission that assists the legislature, and five have a backup commission that will make the decision if the legislature is unable to agree.

This is a significant step in removing the conflict of interest that fuels gerrymandering. However, it is crucial to be aware of how the commissions are selected and designed to prevent the perpetuation of partisan politics that led us down this path in the first place.

Recent court cases have bolstered gerrymandering visibility and outrage, and set precedents for the future. Typically, redistricting occurs after the most recent U.S. Census, which is done every ten years. That means that 2020 will be the next big opportunity for legislators and citizens to stand up and fight for common sense districts that reflect the people who live there and represent the diversity of race, religion, ethnicity, and beliefs within our communities.