Disenfranchised by Debt

Washington D.C. – Poverty isn’t supposed to be a barrier to voting in the United States, at least according to the Constitution.

Yet, more than 50 years after poll taxes were prohibited by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, people with criminal convictions in at least 30 states are still being barred from voting even after serving their sentence because they are too poor to pay their jail fines and fees.

Disenfranchised by Debt is a new report by the Alliance for a Just Society released today at the Debt Nation conference in Washington, D.C. The report analyzes how millions of people, especially people of color, are blocked from voting because they can’t afford their criminal debts. Meanwhile, former offenders with means are able to quickly regain their voting rights – creating a two-tiered system.

A history of racism in the United States and the growing criminalization of poverty means that African Americans particularly, are more likely to be arrested, convicted, to receive harsher penalties, and are then less likely to regain their right to vote.

“Ending criminal disenfranchisement would be the ideal way to prevent the loss of voting rights due to court debt,” said Libero Della Piana, national organizer and racial justice leader with the Alliance for a Just Society. “Poverty should never be a reason for withholding anyone’s right to vote.”

Some of the recommendations in the report include:

  • Limiting interest rates and fees attached to unpaid LFOs.
  • Ensuring that those with misdemeanor convictions have the right and ability to vote while incarcerated.
  • Automatically registering people with conviction records when they become eligible to vote.

LFO debts grow at every stage of the judicial process, including while in jail or prison. Costs can even include laundry expenses, or haircuts. These debts also accrue interest at rates as high as 12 percent – including while the person is incarcerated. Many prisoners leave jail thousands of dollars in debt, with few job opportunities.

“Legal Financial Obligations prevent ex-offenders from rebuilding a productive life,” said Allyson Fredericksen, senior policy analyst and author of the report. “Many of these issues can be ended by reducing fees and eliminating interest on debt while incarcerated. The ability to pay should never be a criteria for voting.”

Most formerly incarcerated people never regain their right to vote.

“Our research shows that while some states explicitly require the repayment of legal debt before voting rights are restored, many other states are more indirect, requiring the completion of probation or parole – with the payment of fees and fines a condition of completing parole,” said Linnea Lassiter, co-author of Disenfranchised by Debt.

In Maryland, voting rights have recently been restored to to 40,000 people statewide completing probation, and starting March 10 will be restored automatically upon their release from prison.

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is the only person able to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, per Virginia’s constitution. He announced last year that “outstanding court costs and fees will no longer prohibit an individual from having his or her rights restored.”

This opens up the opportunity to vote to even more returning citizens, many of them African American.

Virginia Organizing leader Eunice Haigler of Fredericksburg, Va., gives workshops to help former felons regain their voting rights.

“I don’t know if a lot of people know how valuable it is to African Americans to be able to vote,” said Haigler. “Many African Americans don’t have a lot of hope, so to be able to vote and have a say in your community, to make it better, is a whole new world.”

Alliance for a Just Society is a national organization that focuses on social, economic and racial justice issues.

20 Years Later, Can We Finally End Excessive Policing?

The movement against police violence — a movement perhaps best summed up by the slogan Black Lives Matter — is at a turning point.

Of course, police abuse of power is as old as policing itself. Racist and disproportionate police misconduct, and violence targeted at communities of color, is just as lasting. But it seems in recent months that something is happening that points to a major opportunity for real and lasting reform.

One clue to this shift happened in the past few weeks. Amid the physical and emotional rebuilding of Baltimore following the in-custody killing of Freddie Gray and the public protest and revolt that followed, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave her first policy speech of the campaign season. It was a call for comprehensive police reform.

Clinton didn’t just call for small reforms, but questioned the whole logic of current police practices – calling on Congress to, “end the era of mass incarceration.” Her remarks are also surprising because they are in stark contrast to the policies enacted by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, just two decades earlier.

Then-President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made three-strikes a federal law, expanded the number of violations subject to capital punishment, used block grant funding and a number of other sweeping measures that advanced criminalization of everyday life.

At the time, there were about 1 million people in the prison in the U.S. Now there is 2.3 million. The 1994 Crime Bill federalized “three-strikes” laws, massively expanded the number of death-penalty crimes, created whole new categories of crime for immigrants and suspected gang members, and put an additional 100,000 police on the street around the country. Mass incarceration became the law of the land.

While policing certainly wasn’t great for black communities before 1994, since then extreme and excessive policing has been encouraged through incentives, and Congress and the President changed policing as we knew it. The lost lives from Ferguson to Baltimore are only a small hint of the devastating results.

But Hillary Clinton is not the only mainstream figure to recently come out against current policing practices. A number of law enforcement officials have spoken publicly of late about persistent racial problems in police departments nationwide.

Significantly, last year just before announcing his resignation, former Attorney General Eric Holder (the country’s top cop mind you) — declared that, “for far too long – under well-intentioned policies designed to be ‘tough’ on criminals – our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities – particularly communities of color.”

Now even Bill Clinton is getting in on the act, saying his wife and presidential candidate should repeal the very laws he championed, saying, “We have too many people in jail.” The admission may be a little late, but it’s a welcome change. More importantly it marks an opportunity for organizers, activists, and all communities affected by these disastrously failed policies, to redefine safety and security and change policing as we have come to know it.

But it’s an opportunity that won’t last forever. The question is whether the movements are prepared to take advantage of the moment. It’s up to us.

From Oregon to New York, Law Officers Just Say ‘No’ to ICE

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Photo by NYC Council/William Alatriste
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Photo by NYC Council/William Alatriste
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Photo by NYC Council/William Alatriste

Last week the New York City Council passed legislation, 41-6, stopping the New York Police Department and the New York City Department of Corrections from honoring detainer requests from ICE, unless they are backed by a federal warrant.

“Today is a historic day. After five years of work, New York City will put an end to the collaboration with ICE that damages immigrant families and hurts our communities,” said Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York told the Immigrant Defense Project.

After campaigning for the last five years, our affiliate Make the Road New York, has seen a great victory

Further, ICE has been evicted from maintaining operations at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, drawing a strict and clear boundary between ICE and local authorities.

While congress has failed at the federal level to enact comprehensive immigration reform, local jurisdictions from Oregon to New York have taken matters into their own hands to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all of their community members.

In April, a federal court ruling by Judge Janice Stewart in Oregon ruled that holding immigrants in jail extra time at the request of ICE is not required by law. Sheriff Daniel Staton of Multnomah County, along with sheriffs in Washington, and Clackamas counties quickly announced that they were opting out of ICE holds, and quickly informed leaders at our affiliate Center for Intercultural Organizing, of their decision.

Within a week, nine more counties in Oregon, then others around the country, joined them in making similar announcements.

And while it was the ruling of a federal judge that ultimately pushed city and county law enforcement to change their policies, it was the activists throughout the country who made the ground ready for the change. For years, organizers and brave community members have fought to show that ICE holds are not mandatory.

However, without federal reform, people are still being detained, families are still being torn apart, and children are going hungry when their providers are needlessly jailed.

The call to action still remains: Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, and it is needed now.

Daley Weekly: Foreign Policy Takes Center Stage in D.C.

Obama Takes Charge

Wow. Quite a week for our President. He gave three separate speeches at the U.N. that can only be seen as forceful displays of U.S. leadership, however one might view some of the actual policies.

The big one was an address on foreign affairs that bluntly confronted Russia and the Islamic State. You could see some of this coming a few weeks ago when Obama reacted with uncontained anger to the beheading of American journalists. Looks like we are into a long term air war in Syria and Iraq. (We have some strategic advice later in this report.)

Obama even presided in person over a session of the Security Council that passed a resolution committing the international community to cutting off access for those who want to join ISIS in the Middle East.

Earlier, Obama gave a presentation on climate change where he specifically called out China as a major polluter and pressed for global change to limit carbon emissions.

He ended his time at the U.N. with a challenge to other countries to get involved in the Ebola crisis in Africa.

It will be interesting to see whether or not this has any political effect here in the U.S. Obama’s foreign policy critics seemed to be throwing the linguini at the wall to see if they can find anything that might stick. The Rs apparently are going to play the racism card – they began running political ads trying to tie the problems in the Middle East to Obama’s immigration policy.

Latte Land

Huge news event. Apparently overshadowing the President’s performance at the U.N., was the video of Obama exiting a helicopter and saluting the guards with a Starbucks cup in his hand. The right wing went crazy – they had finally found grounds for impeachment even though they apparently do not know whether it is a medium or a drip grind. We have other important questions that the press seems to have missed. Was this a venti or a tall? Was the absence of a burn protection sleeve another failure on the part of the Secret Service? Is Obama covertly signaling his support for the terrorists by ordering beans from Yemen? This story is just beginning. The Birthers soon will report that the coffee actually came from Kenya.

If you somehow missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m85jKv8nDQk


Folks are finally recognizing just how serious the Ebola epidemic in Africa actually is. The CDC put out an estimate that the disease could strike 1.4 million people in the next four months. The death rate has also been adjusted upward from 55 percent to 70 percent, worse than the bubonic plague.

President Obama included a plea for international assistance in his U.N. speech and is working to send 3,000 U.S. troops to Liberia. Lest you worry that this is Obama’s response to the cries for “boots on the ground,” understand that they will be building aid shelters and many of them are medical personnel. The shelters are badly needed – only 18 percent of Ebola victims in Liberia are in treatment centers.

While we have opined for weeks about the Ebola epidemic spreading because of a weak healthcare infrastructure in Africa, we cannot overlook the fact that there is a serious AIDS problem here at home among the poor African American populations in the South. States that have not expanded Medicaid have a health care infrastructure problem of their own.

Anyone wanting to understand how the South has become the “epicenter” of AIDS can read a Washington Post report here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/southern-states-are-now-epicenter-of-hivaids-in-the-us/2014/09/22/9ac1525a-39e6-11e4-9c9f-ebb47272e40e_story.html.

Beneficial Ownership                       

This wonky term refers to the effort by advocates to require states to identify the true owners when they register a corporation – the owners who actually benefit. Because no state gathers this information, owners of corporations headquartered in the U.S. can commit crimes and law enforcement cannot trace the perpetrators.

The consequences of this secrecy have been documented in a study authored by our friends at Global Witness: The Great Rip Off. Among other findings, the analysis shows how it is easier to set-up an anonymous corporation in the United States than in other countries, including such places as the Cayman Islands. The study reports twenty-two cases of anonymous companies in twenty-seven states involving fraud, tax evasion, political corruption, mob crime and money laundering. Access the report and see how your state is doing: www.globalwitness.org/greatripoff.

Efforts to require states to identify beneficial owners during the state run corporate registration process have been successfully opposed by the National Association of Secretaries of State. Once you peek at this report you might want to ask your Secretaries of State why they are helping to harbour these criminals.

Eric Holder and Policing

Last week the Attorney General (more below about his resignation) launched an effort called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. This effort will bring a combination of law enforcement experts, social scientists, community leaders and researchers into a three-year effort to work on the problem of the police and their relations with minority communities.

Let’s hope they can make some progress.

Let’s also recognize that they quickly will discover that the problem is much broader and deeper than just the minority communities and the cops. How can the cops solve the problems of poverty, under-funded schools, health disparities, bad housing, and joblessness? How can we get the cops in a better place when we all keep hearing the thinly veiled racism of T Baggers and their political ilk? How can the cops get rid of the vote suppressers, the Medicaid deniers, the immigrant deporters, the food stamp cutters, and all the rest?

One other tiny little matter – how do you explain to a black kid who bought a dime bag of ganja that he has to go to jail when he knows that a rich, white bank executive who ripped us off for billions will never face a jury?


The National Immigration Center has developed an analysis of the demographic impact of immigrant women. Great charts and some useful tools for advocates. http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/immigrant-women-united-states-portrait-demographic-diversity.


The latest figures, released by the U.S. Census last week, show a modest reduction in the rate of poverty. Before the cheering starts, take note that 45 million of your fellow Americans still live below the poverty line. Note also that poverty among children reaches one in five overall and one in three among black and Latino children.

The Coalition on Human Needs has done an analysis of the figures and reports that many more would still be in poverty were it not for safety net programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance.

 Workforce Development

Concerns persist that there will be a shortage of physicians to fill the needs created by the expanded coverage under the ACA. This issue has been thrown into high relief by efforts to pump money into the VA health system to overcome serious shortcomings in veteran’s health care – they do not know where to get the health providers they need to fill the gaps.

Marching into the breach is the American Association of Nurse Practitioners with the useful suggestion that nurse practitioners be permitted by the VA to practice within the full extent of their training, rather than having them limited by unnecessary scope of practice rules.

The whole health care system should be listening to them. A more widespread use of nurses and physicians assistants would ease shortages everywhere but changes in state scope of practice laws are being opposed by traditional physician lobbies.

Mr. Sensitivity

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) gained and then lost 50 pounds after a pregnancy. She reports that some Members of the Senate made seriously senseless and prejudiced remarks that are too stupid to quote.

One member of the Senate was outraged by Gillibrand’s revelations. Ron Johnson, Republican Senator from Wisconsin, demanded that Gillibrand disclose who made the remarks. Johnson said: “If you’re going to throw out accusations, my guess is you’d probably ought to name names.”

Johnson is Mr. Sensitivity about the treatment of victims. In 2010 he attack a bill in the Wisconsin State Senate aimed at protecting the victims of childhood sex crimes because it would be bad for business if employers who hid such crimes were held accountable. Just to prove his point, Johnson’s office refused to pursue the charge by one of his female aids that she had been assailed by a Wisconsin State Representative who was later convicted of other assaults. Johnson is one of five Senators to vote “No” on the Violence Against Women Act.


The ACA detractors insisted that folks would enroll but not pay. It looks as though 7.3 million actually paid up, way higher than the right wing ideologues suggested. With subsidies, coverage has cost them an average of less than $100 per month.

Too Big to Jail

Wells Fargo reached an agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission to pay a $5 million fine for failing to prevent insider trading. Company executives looked away as one of their brokers used confidential information to make profitable stock investments in Burger King via associates in Brazil. A miracle may be in the works here – there still might be criminal prosecution of the broker, but the executives who looked the other way will be protected by the too big to jail principle.

The Arab Bank has been convicted by a jury in a civil case for knowingly supporting terrorist organizations by laundering funds associated with attacks in the Middle East. This is a civil case, so they will have to pay up, but will anyone enter a prison cell? By the way, this case pales in comparison to the HBSC’s laundering of $200 trillion in money for drug lords and terrorists. The right wingers think we are coddling the poor. Actually, it looks like we coddle the rich.

Foreign Policy

Everyone following the interstices of U.S. policy in the Middle East should be reading Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. I carry my copy with me everywhere. Running to a mere 498 pages, this humble tome shows how the Byzantines survived for centuries while constantly being attacked from the outside, even when they had limited military options. They constantly played one invading hoard off against another. While there have been intervening millennia, very similar tribal/religious sects are there now.

The preferred methods for getting the factions fighting among themselves were bribery and dynastic marriage. While intermarriage might be the simplest solution, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Obama will not be willing to marry Sasha or Malia off to one of the Emirs. So he is pretty much left with the cash option, which apparently will be sent in the form of ballistics. But if he can get them fighting with one another, which they seem willing to do, maybe their energy will be wasted away in the deserts and not against us or our allies.

Musical Chairs

Eric Holder has announced his resignation. He is the longest serving of any of Obama’s original cabinet members. The timing has both a good and bad side. Holder just announce a major initiative on policing that needs strong leadership. However, if he is determined to leave, it is good that he go in time for a successor to be confirmed in a Lame Duck Session of Congress rather than risk having to get someone through a changed Senate membership next year.


The elections are November 4.


Arrested for Standing on a Sidewalk

By Charles Meacham http://charlesmeacham.com/

It’s a familiar scene.

One parent takes their children into a restaurant to use the restroom while the other parent waits outside. It’s been done by many of us — as parents, aunties, uncles, siblings. When kids have to go, they have to go.

But on July 19 this year, this simple and innocent scenario ended with the arrest and brutalization of one of the parents.

Absurd and humiliating acts of police overreach have also become familiar in this country. There are countless incidents of false arrest, harassment and use of force against innocent victims by the police every day in the U.S. The cases that end in loss of life garner headlines (sometimes), but mostly we don’t hear of the seemingly minor and mundane cases, unless they happen to us or to our family and friends.

But this time, the police picked on the wrong person.

Chaumtoli Huq, a well-respected human rights lawyer who is on a leave of absence as general counsel for New York City’s office of Public Advocate, was arrested in the middle of Times Square (a place often filled with tens of thousands of people standing in public) for, it seems, simply standing in public.

Standing in public and being South Asian and Muslim that is.

Huq — who was born in Bangladesh — and her family, had attended a rally in support of Palestinian rights that day. Then they took the young kids to the restroom at Ruby Tuesday nearby. Even though she was standing “inches” from the restaurant windows, police told Huq to clear the sidewalk. Huq said, “I’m not in anybody’s way. Why do I have to move? What’s the problem?”

That’s when police grabbed Huq and slammed her against the wall. She called for help and stated out loud, “I am not resisting arrest.” Police twisted her arm behind her back and handcuffed her. The officers rifled through her purse without probable cause. The police arrested her and took her away before her family even returned from the restroom.

To make matters worse, when Huq’s husband went to the jail, he aroused suspicion from police because he had a different last name than his wife. “In America wives take the names of their husbands,” the officer said.

Well then. What year is this again?

According to DNAInfo, Huq “was held for more than nine hours in lockup before being arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on charges of obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, court records show.”

Huq and her family have subsequently filed a complaint with the New York Police Department’s Civilian Complaint Review Board. They are also suing the NYPD and the City of New York in Federal Court for violating her civil rights, charging the police used “unreasonable and wholly unprovoked force” and claiming the arrest was part of a pattern of harassment of people of color in the city.

Huq told New York Daily News “I was hesitant to bring a case. My job is to be behind the scenes, and help all New Yorkers,” she said. But she realized “that I can use what happened to me to raise awareness about overpolicing in communities of color. I want there to be a dialogue on policing and community relations,” she said.

Let’s hope that conversation is one good outcome of this terrible and avoidable incident.

At the Alliance for a Just Society we speak of the criminalization of everyday life. Perhaps nothing demonstrates that reality more than an innocent mom being arrested for standing still on the sidewalk.

By Charles Meacham http://charlesmeacham.com/
Photo by Charles Meacham
By Charles Meacham http://charlesmeacham.com/
Photo by Charles Meacham

PHOTOS: © Charles Meacham Used with permission.

No New Jails: Consider Alternatives to Incarcerating Children

King County Council members in Washington state are charging ahead with plans to build a new juvenile detention center to be known as the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC). The county’s existing youth facility in Seattle has 50 beds – and is not even filled to capacity. The new jail triples the number of beds to 150, and will encourage more jailing of young people, opponents argue.

The juvenile detention center will cost taxpayers $210 million to build and is expected to be finished in 2018. Opponents say the larger juvenile jail will have many disastrous effects on the community.

Incarcerating young people is extremely harmful to their physical and mental health, and reduces their access to education. Studies suggest the impacts could negatively affect the rest of their lives. Being incarcerated as a youth is correlated with lower earning potential in the future, an increase in depression and other psychological ailments, and an increased likelihood of unlawful behavior.  More than 70 percent of young people in detention centers are there for non-violent crimes.

The majority of youth detainment is often unnecessary, and in King County’s juvenile punishment system, is exceptionally racially skewed. Black youth make up just 6 percent of the Seattle-area’s population,  but accounts for 21 percent of the juvenile jail population. Asian and Latino youth are also disproportionately represented in the facility. Continue reading “No New Jails: Consider Alternatives to Incarcerating Children”

Poor, in Prison – and Pregnant

pregnant-inmateAs poverty levels in the U.S. increase, safety nets are  slashed, and families are left with few options for survival. As a result, more people are forced into difficult economic decisions, including alternative street-based economies and crime from sheer economic desperation. Many of these people are women and mothers.

Among women who are fortunate enough to have employment – women of color, are still making 64 cents on the dollar compared to men. (For white women, it is  77 cents on the dollar.) These women are also most likely to be the primary caregivers for children. Add in the high cost of childcare and the amount of money that women have left to live on is abysmal. Continue reading “Poor, in Prison – and Pregnant”

Oregon Activists at the Heart of Fight to End ICE Holds

Manny releasedBy Nicole Brown

Center for Intercultural Organizing

Last week when I received a call from Multnomah County Chair Marissa Madrigal and then from Sheriff Daniel Staton, I wondered if the sheriff might finally be reconsidering his policy on holding immigrants in jail at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But I never could have anticipated this conversation – or what followed. Continue reading “Oregon Activists at the Heart of Fight to End ICE Holds”

DALEY’S VIEW: Why Aren’t the JP Morgan Executives in Jail?

Have you heard the latest? Apparently JP Morgan will pay a $2 billion fine because it aided Bernie Madoff by laundering $150 billion for his Ponzi scheme – $1.7 billion will go to the victims and $461 million in fines. But here’s the fun part – criminal prosecution will be deferred and no individuals will be charged.

Well la-de-dah. What a nice deal for these guys.

It is not the first nice deal for them. Continue reading “DALEY’S VIEW: Why Aren’t the JP Morgan Executives in Jail?”