Louisiana to vote on Voting Rights restoration tomorrow

10727833-standardToday Ban the Box, tomorrow Voting Rights. The Louisiana House of Representatives has heard about prisons and prisoners quite a bit in recent years, and now they are also getting an earful about rehabilitation, reentry, recidivism, probation and parole; about people living in the community and facing the policies of exclusion.

Today, the House passed a bill to Ban the Box on state job applications, 53-39, setting an example for the Senate, the Governor, and employers across the state that we need to be more encouraging for people looking for work, especially when work can be hard to find.

Tomorrow, this same chamber will vote on allowing voting rights to our community members trying to assimilate and exercise our most fundamental mark of citizenship: voting. The bill, HB 598, passed out of committee without opposition. VOTE and other advocates made the calls, provided the testimonies, and provided ample reasons for legislators to support the integration of people following convictions, an issue Governor Jon Bel Edwards has agreed is of critical importance.

We need your full support, now, at this critical time we are reducing open discrimination on employment and housing. We need you to make the following calls and emails:

Speaker of the House Taylor Barras
(337) 373-4051

Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, III (D-91New Orleans)
(504) 556-9970

Governor John Bel Edwards
(225)342-0991 or (844)860-1413

Let these key people and your own representative know that you support voting rights for people living in our community on probation parole, to please use their positions of power to guide the House members to pass HB 598, and send a message every individual in Louisiana is still a member of our families, our communities, and our state. We need to encourage positive behavior, such as voting, and not deny the efforts of people who want to do positive things.

When anyone calls us “Returning Citizens,” correct them. They mean well, but the response is “not yet.” Not until the 70,000 people on Louisiana, some who “returned” from prison while most were processed through the jail, are restored with the most fundamental and basic right of citizenship: voting.

Posted in VOTE, Voting Rights | Tagged , , ,

What This Election Means for Criminal Justice Reform and America’s Rising Three Party System

There is no need to write an ad hominem synopsis to the unprecedented 2016 Presidential election race, so let’s jump right into it. Those of us who have deep involvement on specific political issues can anticipate what this election means. As an astute political observer and experienced criminal justice reformer, it’s time to collect my thoughts.

It is important to recognize that three ideologies are emerging with surging support now that the charades of the Republicans and Democrats are slipping away and we see the realities of what lies beneath. It would not be surprising, considering these three competing political movements, that 2016 is the final year of a two party system that has reigned supreme since the Bull Moose Party split the Republicans a century ago. Unlike previous third party upstarts, what we now see is a rift in both the mainstream parties, and what we see are the Neo-Fascists, Capitalists, and Socialists.

imgID49323485.jpg-pwrt3Neo-Fascists: “Coming Out” with Pride.

The basic elements of fascism is (1) scapegoating a minority group (typically ethnic, racial, or religious) as the source of societal problems, along with (2) xenophobia and nationalism spurring the “Us v. Them” schism, that (3) lays the foundation for “strong” military responses to the domestic and foreign targets. Using a War Economy model, there is a short-term economic boom for those benefitting, but it is unsustainable because (win or lose) the carnage created comes back to haunt. A culture must be created to make it safe to say racist things or come out as gay. American closets are fewer and further between.

Criticizing Donald Trump is very easy to do, and dismissing him as a viable electable leader may be rather simple (considering the strong anti-Trump polling), but the backs and heads Trump stands upon are very real. The sentiment of racism and authoritarianism never left America, and politically it morphed from the blatant segregation battles of the 1970s into the domestic “Tough on Crime” and “End Welfare As We Know It” rhetoric (and resulting policies), while saber-rattling against China and invasions in the Middle East. We have lived in the Orwellian nightmare of endless war, the memory hole, and constant double-speak.

Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all provided a tidy space for neo-fascism while currying votes linked to “enforcement.” The War on Drugs has actually been a war on communities that includes decades long incarceration, ending social supports to surviving family members, putting police in our schools, excluding people from subsidized housing, continuing the cycle of poverty, stripping entire communities of voting rights and blaming the target of the war for their own demise. Whether working as a prison guard, police officer, district attorney, or cheering from the sidelines: the racist fuel for the War on Drugs has been stockpiling the byproducts for years. Meanwhile, white people have been collateral damage for a punitive criminal justice system that has grown exponentially since the end of Jim Crow and reduction in domestic terrorism (such as lynching).

Put simply, if Rosa Parks were to be dragged from the bus in 2016, the Neo-Fascists would be harping (on social media and mainstream outlets alike) that “She should have just sat in the back of the bus like she is supposed to.”

The Neo-Fascists have grown bolder since September 12th, 2001. Assisted by George W. Bush’s cabal, it became clear that many politicians of both parties could do on foreign policy the same that was done on domestic policy. Criminal justice wasn’t debated for decades, and many civil rights “leaders” became comfortable with the simplistic narratives created by the War on Drugs. Modest debates on foreign policy are often shouted down, as opposition to invasions are deemed “un-American” by people in both parties. Obama’s inability to scale back global American military hegemony shows either (a) the lack of Democratic/Republican rift in foreign policy, (b) acknowledgment that Neo-Fascism is too potent a political force, or (c) a combination of both.

Trump is the hater some Americans have been waiting for. His position in political history is very similar to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. A nation has to have enough technological, cultural, and military strength to envision itself as superior to others, to think it can (and should) squash others that stand in the way of the global masters. The Nazis appeared as an irrelevant racist little sideshow, gaining 3% in the elections of 1924 and 1928. Following the Great Depression, the Nazis gained 18% in 1930, becoming the second largest German party. Hitler then ran for president, and two years later the Nazis doubled their support to 37% of the voters.

Trump may not emerge as the genuine leader of the Neo-Fascists if they genuinely rise to power, but he has the charisma and “brand recognition” to consolidate them. The criminal justice policies they would seek will ultimately stay in September 12th mode forever, perpetually striving to get “them.” Like the protagonist in “Memento,” their entire existence is in the attack, the thrill of the chase, the fear rhetoric of the bogeyman- it can never be victorious. More prisons and detention centers. More police and prisons, courts and judges, and contracts for barbed wire, handcuffs, food, and low-grade health services in a world where humans are used for widgets. More desperate releases from prison, oppressive fees, or people living under electronically monitored control. No social safety net. And considering we are already three generations into this debacle, it is a certain recipe to destroy this nation.

90Capitalists: Why solve a problem if you can profit off it?

The Republicans have historically been seen as the party of the wealthy businessmen, and yet their current top businessman (Trump) has all-too-honestly revealed that he has happily supported both the Republicans and the Democrats. As a personal friend of the Clintons, he exemplifies the fluidity of big money between both parties. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with raking in the cash and nothing wrong with hanging your own shingle. The challenges are at a much higher level, in the billion dollar investments and how the government (through our elected leaders) choose to pursue policies and award contracts based on ideology: More bombs? More schools? More prisons? More hospitals? The tax dollar gets spent, sometimes in ways that help common people and sometimes just to make a few people rich.

The criminal justice system and foreign policy are very similar in that some people are motivated by ideology while others are motivated by profit. Corporations, being collectively owned, only incorporate ideology to the extent that it influences their profits or losses. Collectively, various forces create the pressures to push problems or solutions, or create pretty packages for their solutions which actually only extend the problem. Because the capitalists are throughout both parties, primarily motivated by profit over all else, it has become increasingly difficult to figure out the distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. This is often on display when one party takes over the actions of the previous ruler (“The War on Terror” for example) and the criticisms evaporate, replaced by various justifications.

Republican capitalists needed the support of the neo-fascists to create a large political party, while Democrat capitalists needed the support of unions and People of Color to create a competing dominant party. And vice versa. But now, in 2016, we are seeing these rifts laid bare. The Capitalists are likely to seek out the “conservative Democrats” and “moderate Republicans” (essentially, the ruling ideology of the past three decades) and use their finances to continue pushing their global agenda.

The bipartisan capitalist rule, backed by American military domination infused with an unspoken zeitgeist of white Christian global mastery, is fraying by the Socialist surge and the Neo-Fascist embarrassment.

Bernie Sanders

Socialists: Surging by “Feelin’ the Bern”

Unlike the Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader, the Democratic primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, a lifelong civil rights activist and seasoned U.S. Senator, is the first genuine chance for a populist takeover of the Democratic Party since Jesse Jackson. In 1984, Jackson ran third with 3.5 million votes (21%) and carried Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District. In 1988, he ran second with 7 million votes (29%) and won eleven contests despite his typically Republican anti-abortion views and problematic statements about Jews. Sanders has already gained 3 million votes and the primary is not even half over.

“A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,” was the warning to any third party candidate who might try to supplant either of the two parties. Megalomaniac billionaire Ross Perot assured Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, and both parties naturally recognize that a Trump third party candidacy will similarly ensure a Democratic victory. (A cynic might even question if Trump is a mole sent in by the Clintons, seeking to assure the Democrats’ victory; if the GOP sends Cruz-Rubio to the general election, a third party Trump will carry his Neo-Fascist supporters.)

The Socialists, like the Neo-Fascists, use scapegoats as well. For them it is the capitalists, known as Big Banks, Wall Street, Big Agriculture, Big Pharma and the rest. These are sometimes euphemisms, and other times are accurate accusations that these corporate entities are providing essential services with a profit-first delivery system. The socialists believe certain things should have community controls (food, water, forests, energy, health care, basic housing, etc.) while the law of supply and demand is free to dictate our extras.

Socialists within the Democratic Party have recently been asked to overlook policy ideology due to the very genuine desire to advance racial and gender justice. The election of our first Black president came with hope (for the Socialists) that they could have their cake and eat it too: i.e. Elect the first president of Color and also reign in the banks, stop the wars, overhaul the criminal justice system, and launch universal health care for all. In fact, it wasn’t until candidate Obama came forward as the staunch anti-war candidate did he separate himself from Hillary Clinton in the primary. Meanwhile we saw the Big Bank Bailout, continuation of occupations, a fundamentally unchanged mass incarceration system, and a health care system still controlled by profiteers, much in a manner we might have expected from a Republican president. Eight years later and we see Clinton’s rhetoric moving to the Left and maneuvering so not to be out-flanked again, while some in her camp have famously said there is a “special place in Hell” for women who don’t vote for a woman.

What’s Next?

Pressure can make things explode, but also forge diamonds. As testy and divisive as both party’s primaries appear, this is not all bad. Of course the cynic or conspiracy theorist or crass political calculator is awaiting “the next attack” and who emerges on an aircraft carrier or walking out of the dusty rubble wearing an American flag around their neck. A showing of strength in adversity, particularly “violent” strength (which is obviously not the only form of strength), makes for good footage and historically riles up a crowd. The candidate who could exert that strength may depend on their access to power.

Hillary Clinton is closest to the current administration, and a war hawk herself, so it would not be difficult to affiliate with an expected military reaction, be it foreign or domestic. Sanders may call for a reasoned response and, although Republicans will be called on to rally together as one nation under siege- history suggests that it may be difficult for them to support Obama under any circumstances. Thus, Senators Cruz and Rubio may find it difficult to balance their competing interests and responsibilities when so much of your campaign message is anti-Obama (some would argue that this continual disrespect for our President is unpatriotic), and yet much of your message is also about exerting military force against “them.”

Trump would shine during an attack. His supporters include many paramilitary types akin to the Brownshirt thugs of Hitler’s budding political machine. Trump would have a huge microphone calling for all out attack, and calling the rest of the field (including our President) a bunch of “pussies” regardless of how violent the reaction; there is always a next level. The thought of Trump having access to nuclear weapons must send chills down a trillion global spines. And because it is just as impossible to defeat “terror” as it is to defeat “drugs,” there can be no victory. No peace. Not as long as perpetual war exists and there are enemies to fight.

But maybe there will be no “incident.” Perhaps no ‘agent provocateur’ will emerge in a rally and set off a violent disruption that allows the Neo-Fascists to unleash their punitive desires. If America can last long enough to divide into parties of these three dueling ideologies, people could have a clearer sense of who they should support without so much mixed messaging designed to keep people from caring.

Two days ago, New Orleans made national news for the most “sustained disruption” of a Trump rally to date; this following Louisiana’s infamous KKK leader David Duke publicly urging people to support Trump. Considering the recent judicial ruling to tear down the omnipresent monuments of separatist Confederate leaders, surely some are fully prepared for a chance to clash again, with words or otherwise, as has been the case for over two centuries. And although only 3000 New Orleanians actually voted for the Neo-Fascist, Trump garnered significant support in neighboring parishes, as one might expect after, for example, seeing a group of Black Katrina survivors turned back to New Orleans at the gunpoint of law enforcement.

It is unlikely that the Republicans will allow for the rise of the brazen Neo-Fascist Donald Trump, as a Cruz-Rubio or Cruz-Kasich ticket (with the other bowing out through some other political promise) seems to be an easy combination to slow the engine down. But even if Trump loses his primary in an ultimate “landslide” of 60% – 40%, people will be talking about this power shift, and ask how Republicans can maintain support from those who chant “Build the Wall,” and cheer when he talks of torture. The simple math is that they cannot defeat Democrats without this Neo-Fascist base.

Although Trump seems to have leveled off in his upstart campaign, Sanders has surged as time goes on. Unlike Trump, Sanders has not been the bombastic car wreck from which the world cannot turn away. Trump gets free media, as he is America’s ‘Reality TV Show Goes To Washington.’ Democrats are legitimately torn between several issues, and whether an overthrow or a break away, it is conceivable that Socialist power will arise in America similarly to most other Western democracies that have chosen to prioritize the social safety net.

Clinton has won twelve primaries to Sanders’ seven* (including her win in American Samoa), and gained more delegates (16% to 11%, respectively), yet the primary election is less than half over. In any sporting event, a 12-7 score before halftime does not mean much- especially as the state by state battle is practically even. They are raising money and spending in similar totals, although Clinton has extremely more financial support from Super PACs. Interestingly, the case Democrats love to hate, Citizens United, is working decidedly in Clinton’s favor. More troubling to the conservative Democrats and Capitalists is that Sanders is not being put away despite the Clinton support from the past two Democratic presidents and their massive influence of political power, access to wealth, and media messaging.

*Sanders has since won Maine. Considering Iowa and Massachusetts were practically ties, the score looks more like Clinton 10, Sanders 8, Tie 2.

purple-electoral-mapPurple States, Civil Rights, and 21st Century Disenfranchisement

The Clintonian Southern “firewall” (as the Clintons poll well in the South) is in states that the GOP would likely carry in a general election, while Sanders wins in the “Blue” states. Over the past few decades, the “Purple” battleground states have included: Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, along with Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the South. Clinton won Virginia and essentially edged out Sanders in Iowa and Nevada, while Sanders won Minnesota, Iowa, and New Hampshire. And while it is interesting that Clinton still is the front runner to be the Democratic nominee, Sanders repeatedly performs better in polls against various Republican candidates. Some of this is based on which candidates encourage voters to turn out, stay home, or defect to the other side in a three-sided debate that only offers two options.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, essential a re-emergence of the historic American Civil Rights struggle, is born from the ashes of Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Rekhia Boyd, and so many other names who are likely to be remembered as martyrs of this era. It is fitting that #BlackLivesMatter is seemingly everywhere, as is our nation’s surveillance footage and cell phone videos that have directly contradicted official statements when people have been killed by police.

This 21st century ignition of the Civil Rights Movement comes at a time when it is finally considered politically safe to say the police are occupying communities of Color rather than protecting and serving. It comes at a time when it is considered reasonable to question and unveil the political and economic forces at the root of mass incarceration. It comes at a time when rhetoric is checked through the Internet, and truth has a chance of overcoming propaganda. History matters. Past actions matter. Whether one fought the righteous battle or one drove the struggle into the dirt matters.

If candidates and parties want to gain attention of voters impacted by police in schools, over-aggressive enforcement, long prison sentences, massive collateral consequences, institutionalized racism, and extreme limitations put on the social safety net: they can start by advocating for the voting rights of those impacted people. Those rights become communal, and curtailing them has a collective impact. If a candidate is concerned about offending utterers of the slogan, “The South Will Rise Again,” or doesn’t understand the problem of legal enslavement under the constitution (after conviction of a crime), they probably should not have much space in a Civil Rights discussion. At least not as an advocate of those rights.


*In 2016 Maryland overrode a veto and restored citizenship to people on probation and parole.

Over 6 million Americans have no right to vote based on a past criminal conviction. The majority of them are living in the community as parents, workers, and neighbors. This number is growing, and is reflective of the 80 million people with convictions in America… or more people than it takes to win a presidential election. When a candidate’s actions are aligned with (or opposes) the needs and challenges of those people, we may see a massive shift in political power.

It remains to be seen how much impact Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration policies have on this primary or a potential second Clinton presidency. Much of this history is unknown because mass incarceration negatively impacted people with no political power, and pre-Internet at that, during a time when the Reagan Administration rightfully deserved a reputation for instigating mass incarceration as a response to public health and social issues. There were no partisan arguments over building more prisons, and no campaign debates mentioning prisons or formerly incarcerated people at all. Extremely long prison sentences, doled out over decades, cannot be undone with an apology or a modest federal reform bill. Police are still arresting children for fist fights and making them go to court, partially due to the rhetoric (repeated by Hillary Clinton) about needing to stop these young “Superpredators.” A Supreme Court case finally acknowledging the mitigating factors of youth will not replace school police (created under Clinton’s COPS program) with social workers. “Ending Welfare as we know it,” and excluding people from federally subsidized housing while creating as many as 389 various employment barriers for people with criminal records has had a generationally debilitating effect on low income people, particularly communities of Color, and particularly on mothers who are expected to “hold it down” while their family is plucked bare.

Some Capitalists are finding ways to profit off “rehabilitation,” even when a smoke screen operation is as effective as Trump University. Some Libertarians see the encroachment on civil rights in a race-neutral manner, just as many Conservatives can no longer look away as they now understand the vast tentacles of a domestic criminal justice policy based on punishing “them” rather than searching for win-win solutions among our neighbors. Regardless of the way people come to these issues, those leading the solutions should be the most bona fide, rather than the one who only recently realized their own past approaches were wrong. Some of these experienced people will likely have suffered through gauntlets, be they direct victims of crimes or victims of punishments, they typically are from the same over-policed communities.

Whether we get three parties for the future or two parties being nibbled away by competing views of America, the upstart outsider candidates allow us to finally talk about these issues in an honest and open manner.

Posted in Police, Politics, prison economics, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Voting Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

2016: The year of voting rights, public defenders, sentencing reform, and Albert Woodfox

Posted in Commentary, Innocence, Legislation, Political Prisoners, Politics, Race, Reentry, Uncategorized, VOTE, Voting Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Best Buy’s Job Discrimination Revealed

best-buy-logo-flip-580​During the holiday season when big box stores rake in the profits as Santa’s middle man, Best Buy has climbed atop the Grinch’s mountain and potentially seizing the title from traditional villains Walmart and Target. It remains to be seen if Best Buy’s discriminatory employment practices hit them where it hurts in the short run, but they will likely learn (as Target did) they are on the wrong side of history to discriminate against the 80 million Americans with criminal histories.

After Best Buy’s corporate offices discovered that Thomas Herndon, their Farmington, New Mexico store’s general manager, had hired a man with a bank robbery conviction: they fired him. The general manager. Despite the fact that Herndon subjected the prospective employee to a background check, drug test, and heard agreement from other employees, the corporate managers felt this was a “questionable hiring decision, without partnering with appropriate leadership, that could have put the company at risk.” Best Buy has no policy mandating their general managers partner with “appropriate leadership” (whoever that may be), and apparently does not trust someone who they have hired in a managerial role.

Best Buy may be violating the EEOC Guidelines of 2012
The lawyers among us can bicker about what sort of claims Herndon may or may not have, but the court of public opinion sways market forces more than judges ever have. In this case, Herndon sued for a retaliatory firing and argued that employers have an obligation not to discriminate under New Mexico state law. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (and the lower federal court) disagreed however, and ruled that the law only applies to state employment. This is a prime example of why “Ban the Box” laws need to extend out to all workplaces.

Ban the Box is a movement started by All of Us or None over a decade ago in California’s Bay Area, demanding that people not be asked to “check the box” if convicted of a crime. Through networks of directly impacted people, this argument against blanket bans has gone viral. Although over 100 jurisdictions have banned the box in some form or another, only Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island have extended it to private employers. [Last I checked, none of these states have fallen off the map.]

The national network pushing for Ban the Box (and other reforms) has merged into the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM). Through a recent partnership with John Legend and Color of Change, FICPFM put 130,000 petition signatures on President Obama’s desk. A week later he announced an executive order to ensure a least discriminatory hiring process for federal job applications. To be clear, a decent process won’t end all discrimination in people’s hearts and does not guarantee a single job. What it does is allow an applicant to get a fair shot in an interview, perhaps at Best Buy. It gives him a chance to explain him or herself to a general manager, perhaps in Farmington, New Mexico. It allows someone a chance to start earning a paycheck and build up a life after serving their time in a cage.

Anti-Discrimination needs enforcement, not tolerance
President Obama needs to go a step further and require all government contractors to submit their hiring policies for Ban the Box review. Those with discriminatory policies, or reported discriminatory practices, will not get the contract. Any Congressional action, such as The Fair Chance Act (H.R. 3470 / S. 2021), needs to follow a similar route. Furthermore, Congress clearly must address injustices such as the one committed by Best Buy, who feel they can judge an employment application without ever meeting the applicant- this is precisely the reason hundreds of thousands of people have mobilized over the years to democratically call for changes.

Best Buy might be wise enough to learn from Target, who had blanket hiring bans against people with criminal convictions, despite also exploiting the labor of incarcerated people in Minnesota. When grassroots people, led by Take Action Minnesota and others, filled the streets and filed litigation, the corporation reformed their ways. Ironically, Best Buy’s corporate headquarters is one town over from Target, in Richfield, Minnesota.

As a member of FICPFM, grassroots author of the Rhode Island Ban the Box law, and father of a girl who has been wanting the “Descendants” movie on DVD: I certainly won’t be buying it from the Grinch who steals jobs from people who believe in rehabilitation, reentry and one interconnected community.

Posted in Employment | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

HUD’s new rules may have major impact on affordable housing for people with criminal records

hudseal_teal_1Last week was celebrated for President Obama’s encouragement for America to reduce employment discrimination against people with past records, and his own executive action to ban the box on federal job applications. The heart of that story is how directly impacted people, particularly people from the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement (FICPFM) have been organizing and advocating on this issue from the local, state, and federal levels. This is empowerment, as FICPFM has veteran organizers, strategists, and lawyers within the coalition. Although this Ban the Box symbol from the White House has a long way to go for genuine structural progress, it was the next step for a conservative political class.

Something else happened in Washington, D.C. that may ultimately hold greater civil rights implications than this Ban the Box announcement: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a notice that will reduce discrimination against families who have contact with the criminal justice system. This, too, is an issue FICPFM has advocated since their 2013 report, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions.”

An end to mandatory “One-Strike” policies

HUD pointed out what is already obvious in the policy, yet one wouldn’t know it by the practice: the One-Strike Policy, evicting people based on a single brush with the law, is not mandatory. When the federal government enacted a policy at the height of the drug war, the 1988 Anti Drug Abuse Act, it allowed public housing authorities to do just that. When evicted elderly tenants took this issue to court, the Supreme Court ultimately decided that the rule was constitutional. That case, HUD v. Rucker, is often mischaracterized as the court creating the eviction law. In reality, if the policy changes, the Court would likely also support any such new policy.

Because something is permitted, doesn’t mean it must be done. For years, however, public housing authorities have used and abused that permission to evict people from their homes and from the voucher program, and kept them from returning. Today, however, that exclusion model has passed its peak, as 80 million Americans are subject to the one systematic legal discrimination: the mark of a criminal record. Furthermore, there is no indication that supporting instability and homelessness has had any effect in reducing drug abuse.

Arrests and the restored ‘presumption of innocence’

The other major announcement by HUD last week is the announcement that an arrest, on its own, does not count as criminal activity worthy of eviction or denial of admission. Arrest records are unreliable, and people maintain a legal presumption of innocence. However, the fact that public housing authorities (all of whom have attorneys on staff) have been utilizing arrest records to exclude people is yet another example of how thorough the discrimination has become. It starts in grade school and chases one to the grave.

Here in Louisiana, we have two million people in our criminal records database, in a state of only 4.6 million people. Although some of these people have passed on, the vast majority of that two million have been convicted over the past four decades. With the Drug War fueling the militarization and deployment of police, they have descended on poor people and communities of Color. Although the highest concentration of drug use is on college campuses where students are often given a pass (and definitely not subjected to Stop and Frisk profiling), the police concentrate otherwise- in places where people are often not given a pass, who have few if any connections to the power structure, who cannot afford lawyers, where people of Color will statistically receive longer sentences than white people, where they will have less support for parole reviews, where they will have fewer options once released, and where they will face a lifetime of judgment and re-judgment until we get rid of this burgeoning world of Haves and Have-Nots.

Criminal records have proven to not only be a racial proxy for those who would like to discriminate due to race, but this highly effective form of discrimination is widely acknowledged as a based on a system that disproportionately impacts people of Color. When the Ninth Circuit confronted voting disenfranchisement based on criminal records, the facts were clear- the only argument was over intent. They ruled that because the racially skewed system doesn’t intend to be racist, its racist outcomes are not unconstitutional. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went a step further (consistent with civil rights law) and issued guidelines reinforcing that it’s the impact that is important, not the intent, thus employers should not have blanket policies excluding people based on their criminal records.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

This week HUD has moved forward in honing and advancing their imperative to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH). This means they need to be on the offense, to be aggressive, in order to be affirmative. We live in a nation where practically every landlord conducts a criminal background check, and often passes this cost ($10-$50) on to the applicant. That highly publicized background check is a chilling effect on renters. Some will flat deny anyone with any record. Perhaps home loan lenders have similar discriminatory maneuvers that need investigation.

It is encouraging to see HUD and others nibbling around the edges of a central dilemma among Americans who need affordable, and fair, housing to survive in our economy where (for example) banks can repossess homes, watch them become blighted, then write it off on their taxes while a family searches for shelter. It is imperative that HUD be jumpstarted to become a civil rights champion rather than a target for criticism, and ideally the follow-up to “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions,” will outline significant structural improvements.

Unless we reunite as one nation, we will divide and dissolve under two economies and two subdivisions. Family members of the second-class citizens will be forced to choose which class to be in, and flags flying over businesses will need to signify which nation they support. America can be better than that, however, and will be when we develop affordable housing with the same vigorous building boom, with the same easy occupancy, as we did for prison cells.

Posted in Drug Policy, Housing, Movement Building, Politics, Reentry | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

President Obama bans the box for federal jobs

President Obama signed an Executive Order to Ban the Box for all prospective federal employees. This represents a significant step in the past decade of organizing by directly impacted people. What began as a San Francisco ordinance proposed by All of Us or None, to give people a chance at an interview, has ultimately gone viral. This latest step has been the focus of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, Families Movement (FICPFM), and received an incredible lift from John Legend’s plea for all Americans to sign a Ban the Box petition.


FICPFM members delivered 130,000 petitions, and called on President Obama to Ban the Box, one week ago.

Last week, VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson and other members of the FICPFM delivered over 100,000 signatures to the White House. The President has promised that this number commands a response, and he held to it. The FICPFM was formed as an alliance of grassroots organizations by leaders who have served time in prison and/or traveled long distances to visit loved ones for just an hour or two. Tens of millions of Americans live under vast interlocking laws that impact every aspect of life, from job opportunities to housing discrimination, education to health care. Where 80 million people have convictions, their families also deal with the lifetime consequences.

Details remain to be seen, but as the chief executive of the nation’s largest employer, President Obama has followed the path of Koch Industries, Target, and others who have recognized that it is poor public policy (and bad business) to either automatically reject an application with the box checked, (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”) or to subconsciously plant the seed of rejection by reading that information before making any other assessment of a person’s abilities.

Although a momentous step in the struggle to restore citizenship and equality after serving punishment for a conviction, considerable work remains to be done. The president should take the next logical step and extend Ban the Box to all federal contractors. If they want to business for America, they need to adopt non-discrimination hiring standards. America needs a cultural shift to pave the way for genuine structural change. President Obama has continued a lineage of George Bush recognizing the need for rehabilitation (Second Chance Act) and Bill Clinton’s recent apology that he “made the problem worse” through over-incarceration. Our next president must move towards a more constructive approach to the oppressive punishment regime created over the past half-century.

All organizations of the FICPFM remain committed to local, state, and national reforms based on the help our people need, rather than the help someone else wants to give us.

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Introducing VOTE’s new Deputy Director: a proven leader in criminal justice reform

[As the primary writer of Unprison, I am honored to share with readers that my best efforts will flow through Voice of the Ex-Offender, an organization at the forefront of the criminal justice reform movement- and at the epicenter of incarceration. Expect to see more blogging from that forefront, and I encourage you to help.]

Introducing VOTE’s new Deputy Director: a proven leader in criminal justice reform


We are excited to announce that Bruce Reilly, J.D., has assumed the position of Deputy Director of VOTE (Voice of the Ex-Offender). Bruce is a proven leader in the national criminal justice reform movement, while also serving as a strong voice among formerly incarcerated people in New Orleans, home of the highest per capital incarceration rate in the world.


Bruce Reilly (center, behind Norris Henderson) with members of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement in Washington, DC.

“From the time he moved to New Orleans four years ago to attend Tulane Law School, I’ve been waiting for the chance to get him working with us full time,” says Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE. “Now that we got him in house, we can amp up the leadership development of our members, build out the economic empowerment services for people coming home from prison, continue to expand the electoral engagement of formerly incarcerated people and their families, and achieve policy victories to stop the over-incarceration of our communities on local, state and national levels.”

After working for years as a jailhouse lawyer, Bruce cut his organizing teeth and sharpened his policy change expertise with Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), in Providence, Rhode Island. Bruce was instrumental in putting DARE at the forefront of unprecedented victories, including a 2006 ballot initiative restoring voting rights to people on probation and parole, eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences (2009), reforming probation violations (2010), the Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act (2011), the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act (2012), marijuana decriminalization (2012), and statewide Banning the Box for public and private employers (2013). As a gifted spokesperson and writer, Bruce has continued to deploy data and analysis that counterbalances the tired “Tough on Crime” narrative, shifts public opinion, and advances the credibility of formerly incarcerated people regarding issues that affects them and their community.

“I want to help build a movement led by directly impacted people, alongside Norris, VOTE’s base, and allies in New Orleans,” Bruce explains.  “For too long others have claimed to speak for us while denying our expertise. Those of use who know what it means to be locked in a cage or visit our family through a glass partition are best informed, and have the most at stake, in our collective commitment to end state polices and administrative practices sustaining mass incarceration at the expense of healthy communities. For over forty years the United States has engaged in a disastrous campaign to criminalize social and public health problems including poverty, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness. If we are ever going to switch our approach, while also dealing with reentry and rehabilitation, people with the wisdom of experience must be at the policy table. VOTE is committed to organizing strategies that ensure people in positions of leadership and influence come from the 80 million people impacted by convictions. I am one of 110,000 people in Louisiana, and six million nationwide, denied the right to vote in a nation striving to be the world’s model democracy. For us to claim that title, second-class citizenship needs to end, and only a genuine movement of civil and human rights can do it.”

Previously Bruce has worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Capital Appeals Project, and most recently with the Vera Institute of Justice. He is a graduate of Tulane University Law School, where he was an NAACP Legal Defense Fund Earl Warren Scholar. Bruce co-founded the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement and authored their landmark 2013 report on public housing, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions.” He is also a co-founder of the Transcending Through Education Foundation, a college scholarship and mentoring organization that supports people who are incarcerated or recently released.

“VOTE could not have found a better Deputy Director, period,” says VOTE Board Chair Robin Templeton. “Bruce brings to VOTE a fierce intellect and a honed set of skills—coupled with his brilliant creativity—that positions VOTE to grow its organizational capacity by leaps and bounds. But what’s most impressive and inspiring about Bruce is his indomitable passion and loving commitment to VOTE’s mission and to the community that VOTE serves.”

Hiring Bruce comes on the heels of organizer Gahiji Barrow transitioning out of VOTE. Gahiji’s tireless work ethic and loving spirit has been a staple of VOTE and the wider social justice community, and will be missed. The organization expects to expand in the near future, and continues in its central role for criminal justice reform in New Orleans.
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