News Tag: Criminal Justice Reform

7th Annual Criminal Justice Reform Conference

April 10, 2014

We're co-hosting the 7th Annual Criminal Justice Reform Conference with Jackson State University's Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology and the Mississippi Public Defender Association. The conference will take place on Friday, April 11th and Saturday, April 12th from 8:00am until 5:00pm at Jackson State University's College of Liberal Arts in the Dollye M.E. Robinson Building.

Below is the conference program as well as information about continuing legal education.

There's Work Yet to Be Done

April 01, 2014

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

A year ago, I wrote an email to my pastor advising him of my decision to accept the task of directing the work of the ACLU of Mississippi. On this the anniversary of my first year as the Executive Director, I would like to share excerpts from this personal communication.

“Pastor,

As you may know God has placed in me a passion to stand in the gap for others and to extend equality and justice to those less fortunate than some of us. I know that Isaiah 61 is the call God has on my life to minister to the neglected, the informed, and the poor. My gift includes a boldness and fearlessness to give voice to the voiceless and those others just refuse to hear. Like the Lord I love justice. This is what I am anointed to do.

God has opened the door for me to return to my passion. I have been offered and have accepted the position of Executive Director of the Mississippi affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

As I completed law school and prepared to leave MS, the Holy Spirit told me to stay for "there is still work to be done". I did that and was not only successful in my task but as a result of the work God gave me to do significant changes were made in MS's juvenile defense system. All Glory given to the Father. After many years of fighting institutions . . . I grew weary. . . . I am renewed and ready to return to the fight for freedom and justice for all. There is yet still work to be done. I solicit your prayers.

Please know my belief in and reliance on God's word have not wavered. It is God who has brought me this far and it is He who will lead me on. I believe it is God who has brought me to this hour in my life. The ACLU under my direction will tackle many issues which will prayerfully make Mississippi a more even playing ground.

I wanted to discuss this with you because many people forget that the ACLU's mission is to defend the Constitution. This mission which includes voter rights, racial justice, education rights, health care disparities, access to the courts etc. (issues important to the African American community and other disenfranchised populations) is often forgotten when issues such as women's right to make their own health care decisions are overshadowed by abortion debates.

As the ED of ACLU-MS, I will also be the spokesperson for our work. On occasion, however, the position I take may differ from yours. . . . I would ask that you respect that as I extend justice to some I may be asked to extend justice to all.”

I shared this letter not to promote my passion but the commitment shared by the team of social justice professionals that make up the staff of the ACLU of MS. My story is but one example of the conscience decision it takes to do the work we do to bring about positive change. The positions we take are not often not popular or safe but they are necessary as someone must stand in the gap.

The ACLU of MS has assembled a team of guardians who stand ready to defend the Constitution and extend civil liberties to all Mississippians. This year alone we stood in the gap with a child who had been literally left behind by the bus when his school unconstitutionally denied his right to attend school. We stood with a doctoral student when she was racially profiled. We stood with a Sikh truck driver when he was harassed not only by the highway patrol and discriminated against by judge before whom he was compelled to stand. We stood with the LGBT community when they stood at the Capitol to let policy makers know they are here and they count. We will continue to stand in defense to equal access to the voting booth. We will stand with women to ensure their right to make personal health care decision. We will continue to stand in protection of children against the funneling of the school to prison pipeline.

I start my second year knowing and more importantly wanting you to know that the ACLU of Mississippi will stand with you.

Sensible Policy, Not Smaller Handcuffs

March 24, 2014

By Nicole Kief, ACLU & Jennifer Bellamy, Washington Legislative Office at 12:45pm

You may have heard recently about Dontadrian Bruce, the Mississippi high school student who was almost expelled for holding up the number "3" with his fingers in a photo taken by his science teacher. Dontradian is number 3 on the football team – and despite his being an A/B student with no history of serious disciplinary problems, the school said he was making a gang sign.

This isn't the first time the school district has been quick to label a Black student a "gang member." And in fact the unnecessarily harsh treatment of students of color for misbehavior—or perceived misbehavior—at school is a huge problem across the country. Too many young people are being pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems instead of given the chance to learn from their mistakes. This phenomenon is frequently referred to as the school-to-prison-pipeline.

New data from the federal government, released on Friday, shows just how serious the problem is—and highlights how students of color and those with disabilities are being systematically denied access to education. According to the new data, during the 2011-2012 school year, Black students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. And students with disabilities were more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their non-disabled peers. Both groups of students were also disproportionately likely to be referred to law enforcement and arrested at school.

To add further insult to injury, kids barely out of diapers are also being subjected to these harsh racially disparate forms of exclusionary discipline. The new data shows that Black preschoolers are more likely to face suspension. Black students represent only 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but make up 42 percent of students suspended once, and 48 percent of the students suspended more than once.

One could assume these statistics are the result of Black kids misbehaving more, but that's just not substantiated by facts. As experts at Indiana University recently pointed out, "the data are consistent: there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races." These experts also point out that disparities are often greatest for subjective offenses—like "disrespect"—rather than objective ones—like smoking.

What we do know to be true, however, is that keeping kids out of school will harm them – by making them more likely to fail classes, drop out and become involved with the juvenile justice system. We also know that several promising interventions exist that can help keep kids in school and reduce racial disparities in discipline.

Let's use them, because we need sensible school discipline policy not smaller handcuffs.

Learn more about the school-to-prison-pipeline and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Legislative Bills Still Alive - the Good and the Bad

March 05, 2014

We spoke out earlier in the legislative session about some bad and some good bills. Now those bills have moved forward and are up for a vote in either the House or the Senate. Here’s an update on some of those bills and an opportunity to take action.

- Remember HB 49, the bill that would require drug testing for TANF recipients? That bill is still alive and likely to be voted on in the Senate.

This bill:

  • Violates equal protection for low income Mississippians receiving federal aid.
  • It would cost more to implement than it would save.
  • It violate a right to privacy.
  • There is no evidence that public assistance recipients are more likely to use drugs than anyone else.

Contact members of the Senate and tell them to oppose HB 49 and not to take away important resources for Mississippi’s neediest families!

- The Mississippi Student Safety Act is a bill that we want to move forward! SB 2594, is a bill designed to keep students safe by limiting the use of seclusion and restraint on students.

This act will ensure the safety of students in school and promote a positive culture and climate which has been shown to lead to greater academic achievement. A high percentage of students who have been restrained are not exhibiting behavior that would warrant those interventions and the students that are often affected by restraint and seclusion were young students with disabilities, often with no verbal means of communication.

Contact members of the House and tell them to protect our students and pass this bill!

- HB 765 and SB 2325, are disingenuous bills that would not accomplish what the title says they would do. They are both called the “Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act,” but do not create equal opportunity for students with special needs. The act restricts the academic programs offered to children with special needs. They violate a child's right to equal protection and discriminate against children with special needs attempting to exclude them from the civil right to education in public schools.

Contact your representative in both the House and the Senate and tell them that this act does not create equal opportunity for students with special needs and does the opposite.

- SB 2430, is a bill to require DNA collection from individuals arrested for a certain crime.
This bill violates equal protection, takes away right to privacy and could exacerbate racial disparities in our criminal justice system. We are innocent until proven guilty and innocent people don’t belong in a criminal database.

DNA collection, analysis and retention is expensive. Given the current economic conditions, storing genetic samples of individuals who have not and may not ever be convicted of a crime may not be a good use of resources.

Contact members of the House and tell them to oppose SB 2430 and protect the right to privacy given in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution!

For a full list of the 20 bills we are monitoring, please visit the legislative section in each of our Centers of Focus.

ACLU Files Suit Over Arrest of Woman Engaged In BP Oil Spill Protest

November 18, 2011

GULFPORT -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi filed suit Friday on behalf of a Gulf Coast woman, challenging her 2010 arrest for her peaceful protest of the BP oil spill.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Gulfport on behalf of Sandra Howard of Long Beach. The suit alleges Howard's constitutional rights were violated when she was prevented from engaging in a protest in a traditional public forum. It also alleges she was subjected to unlawful detention and seizure, and that her right to due process was violated.

The suit names the city of Long Beach, the Long Beach Police Department and Officers Shawn Johnson and Melissa Peterson.

The incident occurred June 12, 2010, after Howard walked onto a sidewalk in front of the Kangaroo Express gas station in Long Beach holding a sign in protest of BP. Shortly after Howard began her protest, Johnson and Peterson arrived, apparently in response to a complaint from the gas station manager. Although Howard had a permit to protest, the officers asked her to end her demonstration. When she refused, Howard was handcuffed and arrested as her husband and young son watched.

Howard was charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey the order of an officer. She was transported to the Harrison County Detention Center. Her bond was set at $665 but her family couldn't afford to pay it so she spent the night in jail. She had no previous arrests.

Howard said she had a right to protest BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, which led to the largest off shore oil spill in U.S. history.

“As the oil gushed out of the broken well into the beautiful Gulf waters, all I could think about was the devastation it was causing to my home and my community,” said Howard. “ I wanted to be sure that BP was held accountable for the damage.  I wanted to show my son that we could make a difference. Instead he learned that it was not safe to exercise our most basic First Amendment rights.  I am filing this lawsuit to make sure that no one else gets arrested for speaking out against injustice.”

ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Nsombi Lambright said Howard's arrest shows the need for law officers to be trained on what constitutes disorderly conduct and on the elements of constitutionally-protected demonstrations.

"Our First Amendment rights are fundamental to our democracy," said Lambright. "It is our hope that this lawsuit will push Mississippi municipalities to engage in a serious review of their policies and practices as they relate to a citizen's right to engage in peaceful protest."

Howard's case was remanded to the file on appeal due to lack of evidence.

Bear Atwood, ACLU of Mississippi legal director, said the officers had no cause to arrest Howard.

"She didn't violate any city ordinances. She didn't trespass on BP property. She didn't obstruct traffic on the public sidewalk," Atwood said. "She was improperly detained by the officers and arrested without probable cause."

The suit seeks an injunction restraining officers from interfering with a citizen's right to peacefully protest in exercise of First Amendment rights. The suit also seeks compensatory and punitive damages and expungement of Howard's records.

 

 

Reality Check

November 11, 2011

By Nsombi Lambright, ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director

Tuesday was a very emotional day for me.  I began my work that day by voting.  I always measure voter turnout (and potential problems) by what's happening at my own polling place.  That went smoothly.  I then went to campaign headquarters to find out what neighborhoods needed canvassing in order to make sure that people were "getting out to vote."  Rabbi Debra Kassoff and I spent most of the day canvassing the communities surrounding Brinkley Middle School and Johnson Elementary School in northwest Jackson.  These neighborhoods are joined by Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.  While canvassing these neighborhoods, we saw many things.  We witnessed poverty and government neglect, but we also witnessed family and community connectivity.  We saw generations of families living under one roof.  Grandma, daughter and granddaughter were all going to vote at the first home that we visited.  Unfortunately, granddaughter never received her voter registration card although she'd registered multiple times at the WIC office.  We talked to many grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, mothers and fathers who assured us that the family had voted against Initiatives 26 and 27 that day.  We also had the opportunity to speak to young brothers who didn't understand what the initiatives were about.  Working directly in communities still brings me as much joy today as it did almost 20 years ago when I started organizing.  It centers me and reminds me what this work is all about.  The folks that I work with always remind me of my family and they remind me that even though I have a job that pays me to do this work, I am not disconnected from the communities that we serve.  These are my people, whether I run into them at a meeting, a family reunion, church or the grocery store.  I am privileged to do this work and will keep fighting!!  Little Sister, I'll be back to make sure that you get your registration card this time!

Join your community as we educate, agitate, and organize the MS Youth Justice Movement forward!

November 11, 2011

The time that you have been waiting for is here! The first MS Youth Hip Hop Summit Quarterly Youth Leadership Meeting is set for Saturday,  Nov. 12, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the STEPS Coalition Building – DeMiller Hall (formerly the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer), 610 Water St. - Biloxi, MS. Join the broad-based coalition of social justice organizations as Mississippi's youth continue to learn how to work for change. We will continue what we started in Jackson this summer as we build skills to be effective youth justice activists. The time is now to make your voices heard and push for real changes in your communities! The ACLU of MS, NAACP MS State Conference, Children's Defense Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Coalition for Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse are continuing their collaboration to move this project forward.

The Quarterly Youth Leadership Meetings will continue the MS Youth Justice Movement we started in Jackson this July and push it forward to even greater heights! The state is divided into five regions, with the coastal area and surrounding towns/cities (Hattiesburg/Forrest County south) being the Southern Region. The day's activities will consist of excellent, rewarding, and fun workshops and activities designed to make you an effective activist.

The interactive workshops include:

- Effective communications, outreach, and student assembly.

- Know your rights: How to handle harassment from those in authority: police, teachers, administrators, etc.

- Creating the first edition of the MS Youth Hip Hop Zone.

- Art (music, visual, dance )

- MS Student Bill of Rights drafting (see attached draft from the summit)

- Action: Taking it to the streets!

*AND MUCH MORE!

Lunch and refreshments will be provided free of charge.

Even if you didn't attend the 2011 MS Youth Hip Hop Summit in Jackson, you can still be part of the Quarterly Leadership Meeting.

We want you to join in the fight of making your schools, homes,and communities better places! YOUR voice is critical in making the rightchange MS needs; we CANNOT do it without YOU!

 

We look forward to seeing YOU again or for the first time on Sat., Nov. 12 in Biloxi! Please contact us with any questions and/or concerns. We can’twait to see YOU in Biloxi!

PLEASE - RSVP to the MS Hip Hop Summit Facebook events page: \\Quarterly Youth Leadership Meeting (facebook.com/MS.hiphopsummit)

Know Your Rights In Desoto County

September 20, 2011

The ACLU of Mississippi and the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance sponsored a Know Your Rights training in DeSoto County on Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. at M.R. Dye Public Library, 2885 Goodman Road.  Dozens of students and parents were shown how to be their own advocate in school and communities. All students -- regardless of race, nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation or religious beliefs -- are entitled to all rights under the U.S. Constitution.

ACLU Report Calls For Immediate Reform Of Mississippi Drug Enforcement System

March 28, 2011

Excessively Harsh Sentences For Minor Drug Offenses And Misuse Of Confidential Informants Undermines Criminal Justice System

CONTACT: Elizabeth Beresford, ACLU National, (212) 519-7808 or (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org
Nsombi Lambright, ACLU of Mississippi, (601) 354-3408 ext. 223 or (601) 573-3978; nlambright@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, MS – Overly harsh and punitive sentences for low-level, non-violent drug crimes feed a racially discriminatory criminal justice system in Mississippi that fails to protect the public’s safety, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi.

According to the report, “Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System,” black Mississippians are three times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges, even though drug use rates across the state are virtually identical for blacks and whites. And because the state’s drug task force funding is contingent upon securing convictions, low-level drug offenders ensnared in the system feel compelled to become confidential informants who are used indiscriminately to ramp up the quantity of drug arrests with little regard to the quality of the cases they help to build.

“There is an urgent need to reform the policies that govern the drug enforcement system as a whole in Mississippi,” said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement tactics need to be replaced by policies that actually enhance our public safety, protect civil rights and ensure the state’s fiscal solvency.”

The report reveals that while the use of confidential informants is a cornerstone of the state’s regional drug task force operations, the practice is shrouded in secrecy. As part of the investigation that led to the creation of the report, the ACLU of Mississippi spent nearly two years seeking basic information about the nature and extent of the practice by requesting access to documents that state officials acknowledged should be publicly available under the Mississippi Public Records Act. Yet no access was ever given.

Law enforcement justifies the practice of using confidential informants – especially in drug cases – as an essential means for identifying those who commit crimes and for securing their convictions. But the many perverse incentives embedded in the practice invite abuse and disparity, undermining the fundamental legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

The report offers a number of solutions for improving the effectiveness and fairness of the state’s criminal justice system, including replacing mandatory minimum sentences with a flexible set of sentencing standards and guidelines, requiring corroboration of testimony by all informants and making information regarding the reporting requirements and evaluations of drug task forces publicly available.

A copy of the report is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/numbers-game-vicious-cycle-incarceration-mississippis-criminal-justice-system

ACLU of MS Applauds Suspension of Scott Sisters Sentence

December 29, 2010

Contact: Nsombi Lambright, nlambright@aclu-ms.org, 601-573-3978

JACKSON - Today the ACLU of MS joined a coalition of organizations including the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the NAACP and the Worker's Center for Human Rights to celebrating the suspension of the Scott Sisters double life sentences. Gladys and Jamie Scott were convicted of armed robbery in Scott County MS during an incident where less than $11 was allegedly stolen in 1993. The sisters have maintained their innocence and other witnesses have admitted committing perjury during the trial, yet the sisters were allowed to languish in prison for the past 16 years.

Governor Haley Barbour announced his decision to suspend their sentences after receiving a report from the state parole board on yesterday. Local Jackson attorney Chokwe Lumumba has led a team of lawyers to file appeals for their release over the last few years. The Scott Sisters will be released from custody within the next few days. This victory comes after the tireless work of many attorneys, legislators, activists and media outlets who have been filing legal actions, petitions, hosting marches and rallies all calling for Glady's and Jamie's release.

The ACLU is delighted that the Governor took this step toward justice and we're overjoyed that these sisters will be reunited with their families. We also help that Jamie Scott can now receive the adequate medical care that she has so desperately needed since her kidneys began to fail years ago while incarcerated.

The ACLU has been committed to the release of the Scott Sisters and overall sentencing reform in the state of Mississippi. There are many other cases that deserve reconsideration and we hope that this is a first step in sentencing reform in Mississippi. The Scott Sister's 16 year incarceration represents another blotch in the state's history of racial injustices within the criminal justice system.

The judge who sentenced the Scott Sisters, Marcus Gordon, is the same judge who sentenced Edgar Ray Killen to 20 years for the murders of the three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mikey Swerner in Neshoba County in the late 1960's.

For more information on the Scott Sister's story and for updates about their release, please visit our website, www.aclu-ms.org.