Reminder: Corporations Are Profiting Off Of Migrant Detention

The stories being reported from our country’s Southern border are horrifying. It is worth remembering that two corporations are profiting handsomely off of the current administration’s callous and inhumane policies. CoreCivic and GEO Group are the two largest providers of private prison and detention centers in the country.

In April, a lawsuit was filed against CoreCivic, alleging that the corporation is making millions in profit off of forced labor of migrants detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The detainees are paid a meager wage of between $1 and $4 a day.

The lawsuit further alleges that detainees are deprived of basic necessities — like food, toilet paper, or soap — and must work for the ability to purchase those items from Stewart’s commissary. If they refuse to work, they are threatened with solitary confinement, or further withholding of necessities.

The plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of civil rights groups and lawyers, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Project South, include Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a detainees currently incarcerated at Stewart.

“When I arrived at Stewart I was faced with the impossible choice — either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” Barrientos wrote in a statement released to CNN in April.

“If I didn’t work,” Barrientos continued, “I would never be able to call my family.”

A joint investigation from Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting and WABE reveals more about the inhumane conditions at Stewart. Reporters obtained federal records showing that Stewart is experiencing critical staffing shortages as well as an influx of drugs. Two detainees have died in a 12 month period; one who died by hanging himself with a bed sheet while being held in solitary confinement, and the other from complications from pneumonia.

Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, sent a letter to several members of Congress last week, calling on them to “end an unjust detention system that sends immigrants far from their families and friends, subordinates their well-being to the profit of others, and strips them of their rights.”

Similar lawsuits and allegations are cropping up at detention centers owned by CoreCivic around the country. Last month, a group of men issued a statement detailing the severe abuses and mistreatment that they are subject to inside Otay Mesa Detention Center, outside of San Diego. “They force us to work for 6 hours for a payment of $1.50,” the letter reads. They also claim that they are threatened to be sent before a Judge when they refuse to work. The letter is signed by 37 detainees.

Any modicum of profit motive is poison to a system which seeks to humanely detain people. The basic civic responsibility of the justice system cannot be held hostage by corporate executives, city budgets, or stockholders.

Remembering our Friend and Hero, Lewis Sinclair

Ten years ago today, the world lost a true luminary. A dear friend of the Southern Center, Lewis Sinclair, peacefully passed away at the age of 93 on June 8th, 2008.

Lewis and his beloved wife of 27 years, Mary Sinclair

A passion for and dedication to social justice and grassroots community organizing were constant throughout Lewis’s incredible life. He believed that people didn’t need to be lectured on what was wrong, or what needed to change in their communities – they already knew  – and that the fixes were simply a matter of bringing people together to collectively identify challenges and brainstorm their solutions. “You need two things to do this work, a sense of outrage and a sense of humor, and Lewis had both in abundance,” former Southern Center President Steve Bright told the AJC. “He never let us take ourselves too seriously. He raised our spirits on countless occasions.”

Lewis was a constant presence at protests.

Lewis was an economist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, who eventually retired to Atlanta. He was a constant presence at protests against capital punishments and any human rights violation. As a friend of SCHR — and a board member —  Lewis, along with Mary Sinclair, his beloved partner of 27 years, would assist in death penalty cases by interviewing witnesses and preparing them to testify in court, ensure client’s family was taken care of, and volunteer any variety of practical assistance that the SCHR attorneys needed. “Lewis was very proud of the Southern Center and proud of its work,” remembers Mary Sinclair. “He felt so good about what the office did.”

Kori Chen writes in the SCHR Human Rights Report, “while deeply committed to SCHR’s excellent legal work, Lewis also believed that you could only achieve so much through the courtroom. Lewis remembers that SCHR – then known as the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee – was founded to be the legal support for local activists organizing against the death penalty and brutality in prisons and jails. Thus, he was very supportive of broadening the scope of its work to include strategies such as community organizing through programs like Fairness for Prisoners’ Families and our campaign against private probation companies in Americus, Georgia. In essence, Lewis saw these efforts as returning SCHR to its roots.”

Most poignantly, Lewis believed in the power of people. He believed that every individual, regardless of profession or status, holds the power within themselves to create the change that is needed in the world. We carry these lessons with us and continue to be inspired by Lewis’s legacy.

“From my earliest days at SCHR, I knew I had cheerleaders in Mary and Lewis Sinclair,” remembers Sara Totonchi, SCHR Executive Director. “They helped us all feel part of something larger than ourselves, a struggle of enormous urgency for human rights and dignity. As we remember Lewis today, we reaffirm our commitment to continuing the struggle that he and others bravely fought for so many years.”

Read Kori Chen’s tribute to Lewis here.

Death Sentences are Dwindling in Georgia, In Favor of a Different Kind of Death Sentence: Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole

It has been 4 years since a jury in the state of Georgia handed down a death sentence. This trend, and the shifting perceptions of capital punishment, have been reflected across the country: according to a Quinnipiac National Poll released in March, American voters support the death penalty 58 – 33 percent for people convicted of murder, yet when offered a choice between the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole, Americans choose the life option, 51 – 37 percent. According to Quinnipiac, this marks the first time a majority of voters backed the life without parole option since they began asking this question in 2004.

Georgia courts have imposed just four death sentences in the past nine years, and none since 2014. This is a remarkable shift from the 1990s, in which the state averaged nine new death sentences per year. It would appear from that shift that Georgia, through its prosecutors and juries, has turned away from the death penalty.  But executions tell a different story. Georgia carried out one or two executions per year in the 1990s, yet our state has executed nineteen people in the last four years.

Over the last few years, Georgia has executed a man whose drunk lawyer bungled the case, a man with intellectual disabilities, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a woman who planned but did not actually commit murder, and at least three men with strong claims of actual innocence. “These cases are no outliers,” says Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “They are emblematic of a particularly harsh time in Georgia’s history when death sentences were handed out frequently despite substantive and procedural flaws. And they encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia.”

In 2017, nationally, 39 death sentences were imposed. While this number is still unacceptably high (particularly when juxtaposed against the rest of the Western world) compared to 1998, when 295 individuals were sentenced to die, it’s a welcome decline. Pete Skandalakis, the Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, attributes the decline in death sentences as a result of people getting more comfortable with the idea of life without the possibility of parole. “That has made a huge difference,” Skandalakis told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “And when you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives.”

A sentence of life without the possibility of parole – while an improvement over capital punishment in many ways – is a different sort of death sentence. Sending someone to die behind bars, with no expectation of ever being released, denies their humanity and their chance at redemption. Still, it seems that Georgia – and perhaps the country as a whole – is more ready than it’s ever been to move past capital punishment.

“Now is the time for Georgia to acknowledge that the death penalty no longer serves us,” says Totonchi. “It’s expensive, it’s fraught with errors, it’s disproportionately sought against people of color and low income individuals, and it targets our most vulnerable, including people with disabilities and metal health conditions.”

Read more at the AJC.

Lighting the Fires of Freedom: A Conversation with Janet Dewart Bell

Who comes to mind when you think of leaders of the Civil Rights movement? Martin Luther King, Jr.? W.E.B. Du Bois? A. Philip Randolph?

What about June Jackson Christmas, a psychiatrist who opened her home to civil rights workers for respite, raised funds, and provided free counseling? Or Georgia Gilmore, a cook who helped raise funds to help sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Perhaps Mamie Till Mobley, mother of murdered teenager Emmett Till, who espoused forgiveness and redemption; frequently evincing love for the children of her son’s killers? Throughout the Civil Rights era (and throughout American history) Black women activists have consistently fought for freedoms and rights that they had never known, and perhaps wouldn’t see in their lifetimes.

The Black women who have long been confronting and working to end the most critical civil and human rights issues facing our nation are often left out of the history books. In her new book, Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, social justice activist and communications strategist(and SCHR board member) Janet Dewart Bell profiles nine Black women who led – with little or no recognition– on many levels of the Civil Rights movement. Though these women aren’t household names, their contributions and sacrifices continue to be felt today. SCHR Communications Manager Hannah Riley spoke with Bell about her new book, the ongoing fight for equal rights, and what lessons we can learn from their fight.

Lighting the Fires of Freedom

Featured in the book are Aileen Hernandez, the first Black president of the National Organization of Women; New Orleans chef and restaurant owner Leah Chase; psychiatrist Dr. June Jackson Christmas; Diane Nash, a leader of the Nashville student movement and a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Gay McDougall, who was the first African American admitted into Agnes Scott College and later became a human rights leader who focused on ending apartheid in South Africa; Judy Richardson, SNCC activist and co-founder of Drum and Spear Press, devoted to publishing Black literature and associate producer of the landmark television series, Eyes on the Prize; Kathleen Cleaver, the first woman to serve on the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party; Gloria Richardson, known  as “the Lady General of Civil Rights”; and Myrlie Evers, wife of Medgar Evers, who later served as chair of the NAACP.

These women joined the movement not to seek fame or recognition, but a more just world. Despite their impact on the civil rights movement, they remain relatively unknown. With this book, Bell hopes to change that.

“The book grew out of research for my dissertation, during which I found a lot of women that I could have written about and interviewed,” says Bell. “These nine women represented a wide range of activity, and at different levels of these movements. They are iconic on their own, of course, but they also represent different groups that lead at all levels . This all grew out of my theory of leadership, and my respect and love for African American women leaders and for The Movement itself.”

“In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, we start with a chef and restaurant owner, Leah Chase, and her contribution to the movement. She hosted interracial groups of civil rights workers and gave them a place to meet – which was against the law at the time. New Orleans had perhaps a more genteel Jim Crow, but it was still there. For most, it was separate and  unequal. I also spoke with Dr. June Jackson Christmas, who was a psychiatrist. She and her husband opened their town house in New York City as a respite to civil rights workers. She hosted unknown activists and big names, she raised funds; she provided counseling to civil rights workers who just needed a break (this was before people talked about PTSD.)”

Bell speaks to various audiences about her book often, and has been asked what lessons might be taken away from the interviews conducted in the book.  “A young person at one of my talks told me that she feels discouraged, and feels that it’s difficult for her and her friends to know what to do,” she says. “And I said, you know, the advantage we had – even though we had segregation – was that we knew what the problem was; we weren’t being bombarded with the falsity of “post racialism.” The other part is that we believed in a future, even if we couldn’t make it better for ourselves, that would be better for those who follow. The unleashing of the bold racism under Trump has made it much harder. We have unarmed people being shot and killed without remorse or government action — encouraged by the policies and pronouncements of Trump and his allies.The instruction I think we get from all of this is we must do what the Southern Center has always done. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That’s what these Black women believe.”

These women had very little money, no societal clout, and no laws on their side. Despite these setbacks – or perhaps because of them – they developed creative approaches to building transformational leadership.

“They provided leadership that was just not acknowledged, and it was certainly underappreciated,” Bell says. “Take the Montgomery bus boycott: this wasn’t successful based on the oratory–although providing a narrative is extremely important — it was successful based on organizing. The organizing that went on behind the scenes was critically important. Someone had the vision to come up with alternate forms of transportation,  for folks not taking the bus any longer. Money had to be raised to support the boycotts. Take Georgia Gilmore, a cook, who started a the “Club from Nowhere  to fundraise for the boycotts. She, and other cooks and service workers many of whom lost their jobs as a result, did a lot to support the boycotts and the movement.”

What, if any, is the common thread among these women? “All these women,” Bell says, “were totally grounded in Black culture and community. They had a familiarity and a comfort with it. Their upbringing was one of being positive, not only about themselves and this country, amid Jim Crow, but being positive about themselves. My late husband and I said this to each other – and others – often: there is joy in the midst of struggle. You must find your center and hold onto it. These women in my book are real people leading real lives. They are whole people; for black people, preserving personhood is itself an accomplishment. That’s what these women did – and do – and that’s what I tell young people. Be grounded in the culture and don’t be distracted by the false notion of ‘post racialism’; don’t internalize the oppression. Call it for what it is, and get rid of it.”

Read Bell’s essay on transformational Black women activists in The Nation. More on Lighting the Fires of Freedom here.

Bad Prison Food Is More Than a Punchline

The quality of food in prisons and jails across the country is notoriously poor. What happens when there is an incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding incarcerated people?

Breakfast at Etowah County Jail.

Across Alabama, sheriffs contend that a state law authorizing them to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any money they don’t spend on food as personal income. This dubious interpretation of state law has been clearly rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it only for official purposes. Despite this, the practice continues. In January, SCHR – along with Alabama Appleseed – sued 49 sheriffs who refuse to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from money allocated for feeding people in their jails.

It’s long been understood that food served in correctional facilities across the United States is far from gourmet. Incarceration has a “gastronomic dimension,” and unappetizing food is often seen as part and parcel of the punishment incarcerated people are meant to receive. But bad prison food is more than just a punchline.

According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to contract a food-related illness than the general population. SCHR receives countless letters from people incarcerated in Alabama, detailing the meager and/or inedible meals served to them.

A new article by AL.com’s Connor Sheets highlights the gravity of the situation at Etowah County Jail, a facility which has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin (one of the 49 sheriffs being sued by SCHR and Alabama Appleseed) kept hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to feed people incarcerated at his jail. Entrekin has pocketed well over $750,000 from the food money account over the past 3 years.

Not Fit for Human Consumption

Benjamin Hunter was incarcerated at Etowah County Jail for roughly a year. During his time there, he frequently handled boxes of food headed for the jail kitchen. Hunter tells AL.com:

“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food. We called them starfish patties because they look more like a starfish than anything. They literally said in bold red letters plain as day on the top, bottom and sides of the box, ‘Not Fit For Human Consumption.'”

Hunter also told AL.com that he frequently handled visibly rotten chicken that was donated to the jail. “I helped load these boxes of chicken that was culled because of tumors and abscesses and deformities or it was past its time to be shipped,” he said.

As Sheets reports, those who can afford it supplement (or replace) their meals with food items purchased from the jail commissary. Those who can’t afford it face extreme hunger, food-borne illnesses, or both.

The impacts of malnutrition and starvation go beyond the physical. According to Hunter,

“Every ‘riot’ I’ve seen was because of some bulls**t they fed us. Every single one I’ve seen was because of the food. It’s not like a violent prison riot or nothing. Everybody just starts raising hell and screaming and hollering.”

Chris Bush, who had worked in the jail’s kitchen for several months, also told AL.com that once, while in lock-down, one man attempted suicide to draw attention to the fact that they weren’t getting enough food. The guards responded by bringing each man in the lock-down unit two cookies, a cup of juice, and half a peanut butter sandwich. After 3 nights, the extra food stopped coming. Hunter corroborated that during the course of his incarceration there were a number of suicide attempts in response to the dire food issues. “If they were feeding everyone enough,” Hunter said, “you wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night thinking your throat’s been cut because the hunger pains are so bad.”

This isn’t the first time that substandard jail food has led to unrest. In May of last year, seven inmates at Alabama’s Marshall County Jail rioted in response to the food being served at the facilities. Incarcerated people in multiple states have organized protests against Aramark, a corporation with food service contracts in correctional facilities across the country.

“Access to enough nutritious food is a human right. When sheriffs have an incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding people in their jails, it leads to appalling deprivations like those reported by detainees at the Etowah County Jail. When officials across the state are profiting off the starvation of people in their custody, the public has a right to know, and a duty to put a stop to it,” said SCHR attorney Aaron Littman.

Read more about our lawsuit here.

SCHR Files Civil Rights Lawsuit on Behalf of Two Incarcerated Men Brutally Beaten by Officers at Georgia State Prison

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of two men who were beaten while handcuffed by officers employed at Georgia State Prison.

The Plaintiffs in the case are Shawn Andrews and Seth Rouzan. On August 11, 2017, they were subjected to beatings by members of the prison’s Correctional Emergency Response Team and other officers. Specifically, in their lawsuit the Plaintiffs allege:

  • Officers removed Shawn Andrews from a prayer service and handcuffed him behind his back. When Mr. Andrews asked why he was removed from the prayer service, an officer slammed him to the ground head first, fracturing his skull, causing a life-threatening blood clot on his brain and breaking bones in his face. Mr. Andrews was airlifted to a hospital where his skull was surgically opened to treat the blood clot and a titanium plate was inserted to close the new hole in his skull.

 

  • Seth Rouzan was in the medical unit of GSP for a psychiatric appointment. He was taken by an officer to a secluded area of the hallway where officers held him down on the ground, handcuffed him behind his back, repeatedly kicked and punched him in the back and ribs, and kicked him in his right eye.  Mr. Rouzan suffered multiple injuries after this assault, including a fractured right eye socket requiring surgery, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, and other injuries.

 

“An officer’s role is to keep incarcerated people safe. Brutally beating handcuffed prisoners does quite the opposite. This behavior has no place in a civilized society,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Atteeyah Hollie.

The Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, and seek to reveal a pattern and practice of excessive force by officers at Georgia State Prison. The lawsuit is brought against six current and former corrections employees. This is the second excessive force case that SCHR has brought against employees of the Georgia Department of Corrections in the past year – in August of 2017, SCHR filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at August State Medical Prison, alleging that the Georgia Department of Correction’s guards used excessive force routinely.

The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in Statesboro.  Read the filing here.

Former Prosecutors and Others File Friend-of-the-Court Brief in Support of Johnny Lee Gates

Yesterday, a unique group of former prosecutors, a former judge, and a civil rights attorney filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Johnny Lee Gates, whose 1977 murder conviction has been called into question by new evidence of systematic race discrimination.  The group, which includes former United States Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, and former Congressman Bob Barr, argues that the evidence of discrimination is overwhelming and that it “must be fully examined on the merits and not swept away as the State desires.”

As former prosecutors, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and a former President of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the signers are dedicated to advancing a fair justice system. The conduct presented in Mr. Gates’s case, they write, “is anathema to that goal.”  In addition, they argue that the Court should reject the State’s attempt to prevent Mr. Gates from presenting the new evidence based on procedural grounds.  “The State engaged in systemic racial discrimination, hid the evidence for four decades, and now that this Court has forced that evidence into the open, the State seeks to avoid its examination.  The Court should not allow the State to do so.”

Mr. Gates is represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), who, last month, filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial, after newly discovered evidence clearly established that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination. In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

Read the pleading here. Read the amicus brief here. 

2018 Legislative Update

Fighting uphill battles is nothing new to the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the 2018 Georgia Legislative Session certainly brought its share of challenges. The efforts of SCHR and our partners persisted into the final minutes of the session – with the Georgia General Assembly adjourning, sine die – after midnight on March 30th.  Despite the continued influence of the damaging rhetoric and policies from the federal administration, SCHR fiercely advocated for legislative changes consistent with our commitment to those affected by Georgia’s unduly harsh criminal (justice?) system. A list of criminal justice bills that passed the legislature can be found at the bottom of the blog.

Notably, we are pleased to share that SB 407, Governor Deal (and his Criminal Justice Reform Council’s) bill, achieved final passage in both chambers with unanimous votes. SB 407 includes many reforms, including changes to misdemeanor bail, increased ability for courts to convert fines and fees to community service, expanded access to retroactive first offender treatment, and improvements to behavioral incentive dates that shorten sentences.

We worked closely with lawmakers who introduced the following proactive, progressive legislative proposals that did not make it to the finish line in 2018, but will continue to be pursued in the coming years:

  • HB 768 – to ensure that people with intellectual disability are not executed in Georgia by improving the process for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases. There was one hearing on the bill with impeccable testimony from Patrick Mulvaney, the managing attorney for SCHR’s capital litigation unit, and Lauren Lucas, GSU Law professor and director of the Center for Access to Justice.
  • HB 802 – to allow parole eligibility for people who were under the age of 18 when sentenced to life in prison and ensure compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • HB 857 – to require that: 1) women who are incarcerated have access to feminine hygiene products and medical information; 2) pregnant women who are incarcerated are excluded from “squat and cough” searches; 3) male correctional staff are prohibited from showers and other dressing areas; 4) only female correctional staff conduct pat-down searches of incarcerated women; and 5) the location of family members be considered when making facility placement decisions for women who are incarcerated.
  • HR 1416 – to create a House Study Committee on Bail Reform consistent with the recommendation of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform to study statutory alternatives to money bond. The resolution was passed by the House Public Safety Committee but unfortunately did not make it to the House floor for a vote in time.

This year, we also had to battle several destructive measures that were wholly inconsistent with the “smart on crime” reforms passed in prior legislative sessions. This included attempts to create new crimes, increase sentence lengths, expand mandatory minimums, and try more children as adults. Disturbingly, there was also a last-minute, but unsuccessful, attempt to threaten the success of Governor Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts and preempt local bail reform in cities like Atlanta. In partnership with our allies in the Justice Reform Partnership, SCHR researched and explained the impact of proposed legislation, testified at hearings, drafted amendments, mobilized impacted communities, lessening the impact of some of these bad bills and causing others to fail.

SCHR is proud to be the convening organization for the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Partnership. The Partnership is a statewide coalition made up of over 50 organizations and individuals from across the political and issue spectrum that unite in our pursuit to pass common sense, proactive criminal justice reform legislation at the state and local level. This year, more than thirty partners co-sponsored “Justice Day at the Capitol,” bringing more than 600 Georgians from across the state to Atlanta to advocate for meaningful and effective criminal justice reform.

SCHR is grateful for the support of all our friends and partners who share our vision for a system that promotes equality, dignity, and justice. If you or your organization are interested in joining the Justice Reform Partnership, send an email to [email protected]. Together, let us build a better Georgia.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILLS THAT PASSED IN 2018

Adult:

  • HB 657 – Makes it a felony to knowingly give a firearm to any person convicted of a felony or on first offender probation. (SCHR’s position – opposed)
  • HB 673 – Distracted Driving Bill that requires hands-free use of cell phones and other technology. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 732 – Expands definition of sex trafficking and increases the penalty. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 751 – Creates the Georgia Emergency Communications Authority. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 765 – CJ’s Law – increases penalties for hit and run accidents that result in death or serious injury. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 803 – Prohibits trafficking a disabled adult, elder person, or resident. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 890 – Creates penalties for using a fire exit after shoplifting. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 834 –  Provides for the termination of a lease when the lessee is the victim of family violence. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HR 913 – House Study Committee on Incorporating Law Enforcement in the Pathway to Treatment and Social Services for Persons Having Challenges with Drug Use and Mental Health. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 315 – Creates the new crime of unauthorized computer access. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • SB 369 – Requires $5 of pretrial diversion fees be given to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 407 – Reforms to misdemeanor bail, conversion of fines and fees to community service, retroactive first offender, behavioral incentive dates and sentencing enhancements for certain firearm offenses. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SR 146 – Marsy’s Law – proposes an amendment to the state’s constitution to acknowledge certain rights of crime victims. (SCHR’s position: monitored)

Juvenile: 

  • HB 740 – Prohibits the expulsion or suspension of any child (preschool – 3rd grade) for more than 5 consecutive days unless drugs or weapons were involved. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 336 – Prohibits the provider of electronic communications services from notifying a customer about a subpoena for records used in furtherance of crimes against minors. (SCHR’s position: monitored)

Reentry:

  • SB 406 – Expands background checks for people working with vulnerable populations. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 427 – Changes provisions relating to income, voluntary unemployment, and involuntary loss of income to account for a parent’s incarceration. (SCHR’s position: supported).

SCHR Continues to Challenge LaGrange, GA, Policies That Restrict Access to Basic Utility Services

Charles Brewer, of LaGrange, suffers from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure. The 55-year old’s health problems render him unable to work, and his sole source of income is the disability payment he receives monthly.

In 2014, Brewer pleaded no contest to driving without a license, and was placed on probation. In October 2015, the City transferred $210.25 in unpaid municipal court fines to the city’s collection agency. In March 2016, Brewer applied for utilities in the home he had just moved in to, and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.”

Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine require electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption.

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC filed a lawsuit against the City of LaGrange, Georgia challenging two utility-related policies. The first conditions utility service access on the payment of municipal court debt; if residents are unable to pay outstanding court fines, they risk having utilities turned off completely. The second policy requires individuals seeking utility services to provide a valid social security number and a government-issued photo ID. In December, our suit was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia because, in its view, the Fair Housing Act only applies to pre-acquisition claims (or discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to obtain housing), not post-acquisition claims challenging discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to keep housing.

Last month, we filed an appeal in the Eleventh Circuit. Multiple organizations from across the country, and four former Assistant HUD Secretaries, submitted amicus briefs to the Eleventh Circuit in support of our position, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Brewer’s story is not an anomaly in LaGrange. In an attempt to lure new residents and businesses to the City, LaGrange doesn’t levy property taxes. Instead, a large portion of the city’s municipal operations are funded by the sale of utilities to residents. The city is the sole utility provider, a monopoly which allows them to both extort unpaid municipal court fines from city residents by withholding utilities as well as restricting immigrants’ access to utilities.

Atteeyah Hollie.

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.  Losing one’s water and electricity shouldn’t be one of them,” says Atteeyah Hollie, an SCHR staff attorney and counsel for the Plaintiffs.

Along with the Court Debt Policy, our lawsuit also challenges the city’s Immigrant Utilities Policy, which confines access to utilities to residents with US government-issued identification and social security numbers. Many undocumented residents are forced to open utility accounts via an agreeable third-party – a desperate act which violates another LaGrange city ordinance.

Plaintiff, John Doe #3, has resided in LaGrange for over a decade. He owns the home that he lives in with his wife and two young children. Doe has both an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) provided to him by the IRS, as well as a Mexican government-issued photo ID. Neither form of identification is deemed sufficient to open a utilities account with LaGrange, forcing Doe to ask a friend to open the family’s utility account, thereby risking criminal prosecution. The family’s only legal option? Live without access to electricity and water.

These policies are not only inhumane – they’re illegal. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids discrimination in the provision of services relating to the use of a dwelling due to race, color, or nationality. It also protects against housing policies which have an unjust impact on members of a protected group. The Court Debt policy disproportionately harms LaGrange’s Black residents, who make up less than 50% of the city’s population but more than 90% of those with debt added to their utility bills. The Immigrant Utilities Policy unfairly impacts immigrants, primarily Latinos.  The Court Debt policy also violates state law in that it conditions utility services on the payment of unrelated debt.

Legislation Would Further Exacerbate Wealth-Based Detention in Georgia

Yesterday, following a three hour hearing on SB 452, the legislation passed out of the House Public Safety Committee.

Sponsored by a group of Republican state senators, the legislation would mandate that local police notify prosecutors when they learn that a suspect is in the country illegally. SB 452 would also require the courts sentencing these suspects to determine whether they are here without proper documentation and to pass that information along to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Local jails would also be required to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before unauthorized immigrants are released from custody.

Unfortunately, SB 452 now includes language that would prohibit meaningful bail reform across the state of Georgia. The legislation would prohibit the release of people on their own recognizance (including for local ordinance violations) until after he or she has been before a judge. This proposal is the product of the bail bond industry, and it will be at the expense of local communities and taxpayers.

The bail language in SB 452 would exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing the immediate release of people who have money. The impact of this proposal will be felt by communities and taxpayers that will have to deal with the unnecessary costs of incarcerating people charged with minor non-violent offenses. The state should not force local jurisdictions to impose financial conditions on people charged with minor offenses.

According to SCHR’s Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson,

“Section 2 (Lines 32-41) is extremely problematic for our coalition’s bail reform efforts because, if passed, it will:

  1. Preempt the City of Atlanta’s new bail policy that requires the immediate release of people charged with minor offenses on their own recognizance; and

  2. further exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing people to be immediately released from jail when financial conditions are imposed.”

    Critically, this proposal was not recommended by executive and judicial bodies that studied bail for more than 6 months. After seeking the input of relevant stakeholders including law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, impacted people and community groups, and studying Georgia’s bail system for more than six months, a committee appointed by the Judicial Council of Georgia and the Governor’s Council on Criminal Justice reform made findings and recommendations for reform. In its annual report, the Governor’s Council issued recommendations on bail reform to the General Assembly. Several of these recommendations are included in SB 407, which is currently being considered by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.

The next step will be for the SB 452 to be considered by the House Rules Committee and then on the floor of the House of Representatives. Can you help us stop this legislation?

CALL TO ACTION:

  1. Contact the Rules Committee and ask for a NO vote on SB 452
    1. In the “To” column cut and paste:

[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; t[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]

    1. Put in the subject line: Vote NO on SB 452
    1. Copy and paste the following (and please feel free to modify as you like):

Members of the House Rules Committee,

Please hold SB 452 without further action. SB 452 will compromise public safety, waste taxpayer dollars and harm the state’s economy. Specifically, the bail provisions in Section 2 will exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia and prohibit local jurisdictions from being able to decide whether financial conditions are necessary to ensure court appearance and maintain public safety.

Thank you,

Your name

Street Address

City, State, Zip

2. Contact Speaker Ralston and Gov. Deal

Speaker David Ralston

404-656-5020 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

[email protected]

Governor Nathan Deal

404-656-1776 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

Click here to use the form on his website

3. Copy and Paste the Call to Action and Send to Your Networks!