Voting is a Fundamental Right

by Gitelle Seer, February 14, 2019

Voter suppression has been very much in the news, as state legislatures around the country either embrace or resist efforts to disenfranchise pesky parts of the population, i.e., those that don’t agree with the governing party’s policies.

Arizona is one of those states. On the one hand, we have our elected officials trying to limit access to the ballot box with specious arguments about voter fraud (sound familiar?). On the other hand, and here is the good news, several bills have been introduced in the Arizona state legislature to address the inequitable treatment of individuals who were convicted of felonies and have been released from prison or probation, but do not have the right to vote. 

Arizona has a disenfranchised population of over 220,000, of whom over 100,000 are former felons who have fully completed their sentences. These citizens live in our communities, work, pay taxes and raise families, yet are deprived of this fundamental right to have a say in how and by whom they are governed and the laws that affect them.

Under Arizona law, individuals who have been convicted of one felony have their civil rights (including the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, possess a firearm) restored automatically after completion of their sentence. Individuals who have committed two or more felonies have to wait two years after their final discharge from prison until they can apply to the court to have their rights restored; those who complete a sentence of probation instead of prison do not have to wait two years to apply.

When considering how you feel about whether someone who commits multiple felonies deserves the right to vote, it is important to put some context around “two or more felonies.” Keep in mind that Arizona has very harsh sentencing laws. Thus, many offenders accrue multiple felony convictions for low-level, nonviolent crimes like drug possession and shoplifting, crimes that in other states are classified as misdemeanors. I am sure that it comes as no surprise that disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color and the economically disadvantaged. However, you may be surprised to learn that women are well represented in prison for such low-level crimes. 

The process to apply for rights restoration can be a bewildering and cumbersome experience, starting with access (or lack thereof) to information; many recently-released individuals do not know that they have the right to apply or how to proceed. Information is not readily available and is often confusing and contradictory.  

Automatic restoration would replace the current application process, which imposes a bureaucratic and expensive burden on the government, is time-consuming and confusing for both the applicant and those implementing the review process, and subjects applicants to discretionary and potentially discriminatory decision making on the part of those judicial officers who review and rule on the restoration petitions. Clerks often disqualify applications with paperwork deficiencies during initial reviews. In Maricopa County, a significant number of applications are denied. 

There are economic, societal, and legal reasons to support automatic restoration of civil rights for those who have been convicted of two or more felonies. First, depriving citizens of civil rights prolongs punishment after the sentence has been served, which flies in the face of a basic tenet of our criminal justice system; once someone has completed his or her sentence, that individual has had the appropriate amount of punishment and is ready to assume the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Studies have shown that restoration of voting rights is a critical step on the path to rehabilitation and facilitates successful reentry into society, which has positive economic effects. Without these rights, the opportunity to get business licenses, housing, and jobs is often out of reach, thus continuing the cycle of hopelessness, poverty, and crime. Denial of these rights creates a stratum of second-class citizens, whereas restoration of these rights strengthens individuals’ ties to the community.

These restoration efforts are not happening in a vacuum. Last year a popular ballot initiative in Florida restored voting rights to over 1 million former felons. States all across the country – Maryland, New York, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota – are working on re-enfranchisement efforts, demonstrating strong public support for integrating formerly incarcerated individuals back into the community.

Getting back to the good news, several bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that provide for automatic restoration of voting rights to those with two or more felonies. They include HB2099, introduced by Representative Espinoza (D19) and co-sponsored by our own LD18 Representative Jennifer Jermaine, as well as HB2401, SB1117, SB1202, and SB1377. As of this writing, all bills have been referred to committee, but there has been no further action. 

For these bills to have a chance to move forward, we need to ramp up our armchair advocacy and contact the appropriate committee chairs to insist that they schedule public hearings. Use RTS to find the committees to which these bills have been assigned and use this handy list of legislative leaders and committee members to locate the committee chairs and any other legislators on the relevant committees with whom you have any connection. Call, write, post on social media, comment in RTS, show up at hearings to speak on behalf of the bills and share personal stories.

In our democracy, every citizen has the right to vote, even in Arizona, the only state without an explicit constitutional provision granting that right. There is nothing further to be gained from a criminal justice, public policy or economic perspective by delaying or denying access to the ballot box to people who have served their time.

Gitelle Seer is a retired NYC law librarian and a seasonal resident in Tempe.

Gitelle Seer photo

 

Header photo credit: joebelanger.com

Private prisons and corporate profit

By Gitelle Seer

The controversial and unconscionable treatment of immigrant families and children at our borders shines a much-needed light on the for-profit prison industry. The largest private prison contractors house thousands of detainees across the country including in Arizona, which like many states is also housing out of state detainees.  It comes as no surprise that private prison companies engage in extensive and expensive lobbying to guarantee that the government’s immigration laws and policies continue to align with their corporate self-interest and help drive their profits.

The use of private prisons subverts the purpose of incarceration, which is to provide rehabilitation for the imprisoned and safety for the community and was never intended to drive profit or be a commodity on a corporate balance sheet. But that is indeed the situation with private prisons, most of which are owned by two large public companies (GEO and CoreCivic) who are accountable only to their shareholders.

Since I prefer my outrage fueled by facts, I started to delve into the details (you know, where the devil is). Let’s start with some very sobering facts to put the situation in context.

Arizona currently has the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country, with Latinos and African Americans representing a disproportionate percent of the prison population.  About 25% of our prison population has been convicted of low level, mostly drug-related, crimes. Harsh sentencing laws, including a law which requires prisoners to serve 85% of their sentence, are partly to blame.  We spend over $588,000 a day to incarcerate prisoners; the state corrections budget for incarceration is roughly $1 billion a year. And despite claims that private prisons save the state money, we pay $24,000 a year per inmate in a private prison, which is $5.00 more per day per prisoner than in public facilities. Approximately 20% of prisoners in Arizona are housed in for-profit prisons.

Bear in mind that these private prison contracts with the state are long-term, some run for as many as 20 years, during which time our taxpayer money is going to publicly-held corporations, whose profits are going to their shareholders, rather than to fund drug treatment for prisoners, or programs that benefit the broader population, like education and social services. And the business model is built on paying for full occupancy even if there are empty beds. Private prisons can cherry-pick which inmates they take, screening out those with chronic illness and intractable mental health and behavioral issues – in other words, the most financially burdensome.

Between the lack of drug and mental health treatment in prison, and the incentive to keep all beds occupied, it is no wonder that recidivism is at the shockingly high rate of over 50% in Arizona.

And if the waste of taxpayer dollars while filling the corporate coffers in not outrageous enough, what about the conditions under which inmates live, and the safety threats to the community? There are many documented instances of safety violations, unchecked personal assaults and violence, escapes, riots, poorly trained and inadequate staff, and other scandals. And whose feet are held to the fire? Corporations are shielded from both full disclosure and the consequences of these conditions. Private prisons self-report and are not adequately monitored by the Arizona Department of Corrections. Imagine if you let your children “self-report” on their actions!

To add insult to injury (and deepen the financial hold of private prison contractors), the Arizona State Retirement System has investments in one of the largest private prison companies. Quite the irony, given the lack of funding for education and the fact that Arizona spends more than twice as much to house a prisoner than to educate a child.

Until we take control of the rise in the prison population, we must find ways in which to hold these companies accountable for their poor oversight and break their financial stranglehold on our corrections system. There are steps that the Department of Corrections can take, such as demanding transparency of records, requiring accessibility by outside monitors and members of the press, and tying continuation of contracts to objective measures of success, including declining recidivism and successful drug treatment programs.

In addition, we as citizens must pressure our lawmakers to make good faith efforts to address the complexity of factors that contribute to mass incarceration. But that is a conversation for another time.

Gitelle Seer, retired NYC law librarian and a seasonal resident in Tempe.
Gitelle Seer photo


Header image from www.usprisonculture.com in http://wondergressive.com/private-prison-sues-state-wins-more-prisoners/

Dead People Walking

By Barbara Clark

Political Commentator Marc Thiessen claims that Trump is “fearlessly pro-life.” (May 24, 2018).

Is this the same Trump who gleefully declared, “I like war?”  War means dead people.

Is this the same Trump who has openly admired Putin, Duterte, and Kim for being “strong?”  They meet his idea of “strong” by slaughtering uncounted numbers of people to get their own way.  Slaughter means dead people.

Is this the same Trump who supports the attempts by the right wing to deny access to medical care to as many people as possible?  A lack of medical care means dead people.

Is it the same Trump who favors shutting down women’s reproductive health care clinics just in case someone might need an abortion?  This country has long had the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, and now that rate is climbing.  And, by the way, maternal mortality means dead people.

Surely this can’t be the same Trump who supports other deadly policies of the right wing.  Policies like rolling back environmental laws, allowing industries to poison people’s air and water and food in the name of profit.  Poison causes dead people.

Policies like sending people fleeing from violence and starvation back to where they came from, causing more dead people.  Policies like refusing to provide adequate and timely disaster aid to Puerto Ricans, causing thousands of dead people.

He accepts the radical right’s adamant refusal to acknowledge the very existence of climate change.  Regardless of the cause, it is real, it is killing people, and it is on track to kill more.  Killing means dead people.

He has no problem with the many right-wing politicians who support and are supported by an extremist “Christian” movement called Dominionism, which advocates for the execution of gay people.  Execution means dead people.

He is decidedly in line with their acquiescence to the NRA in refusing to consider any regulations on fire-arms, despite an overabundance of evidence that regulations save lives.  Refusal to save lives means lots and lots of dead people.

Perhaps Theissen believes, as many others seem to, that “life” begins at conception and ends at birth.   Perhaps he and others believe that “innocent life” applies only to the unborn and is lost when one commits the sin of taking a first breath.  Perhaps they believe that being rabidly anti-abortion means they can support policies that kill already-born people and still claim the title of “pro-life.”

But most people know that calling Trump “pro-life” is either profound ignorance or a deliberate misnomer.  And a deliberate misnomer is a lie.  And causes dead people.

Barbara Clark
Tempe Activist


Header image: From Child Abuse at the Border by Patrick Chappatte, New York Times, June 18, 2018

SCOTUS and the LGBTQ Community

SCOTUS Shows Why We Need Uniform Protections for LGBTQ Community

Pride Month — the annual June celebration of the LGBTQ community which commemorates the Stonewall Riots of 1969 — got off to a sour start with the Supreme Court’s decision on June 4 in the closely-watched Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in favor of a Colorado baker who was sanctioned by the state’s Civil Rights Commission for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. As the Supreme Court often likes to do, it sidestepped the core Constitutional question (Do LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws violate the First Amendment freedoms of people who claim their religion requires them to discriminate against gays?) and issued a narrow ruling in favor the cake shop on the grounds that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown prejudice against the baker’s religious beliefs when handling his case. At issue were some comments one of the commissioners made which the Justices interpreted as anti-religion.

This ruling satisfied no one, and guaranteed that the question of LGBTQ Americans’ right to not be discriminated against will continue to be fought out in court cases for years to come. But much of the media coverage and commentary has, in my opinion, missed one of the biggest lessons we should take away from this case if you support LGBTQ equality. Masterpiece Cakeshop was only ever sanctioned because Colorado has a state law banning LGBTQ discrimination. With no national anti-discrimination law, LGBTQ Americans are forced to navigate a complex patchwork of state and local ordinances in order to avoid completely legal discrimination.

Legislative District 18, and the larger Phoenix Metro area we are a part of, is a perfect example of this problem. Arizona, perhaps unsurprisingly, has no statewide anti-discrimination law like Colorado’s. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s State Equality Index, a thick guidebook designed to help people navigate state laws, Arizona is ranked as a “High Priority to Achieve Equality,” with no protections for employment, housing, and public accommodations, among many other areas. Arizona is ranked lower than any of the states we border (yes, even Utah, which is categorized as “Building Equality”), illustrating the patchwork nature of these laws and making us unattractive to LGBTQ people in neighboring states who might want to move here and add to our economy.

But it gets even patchier than that. HRC also releases a Municipal Equality Index which ranks city-level ordinances. For places like Arizona with no protections at the state level, these city-level laws can be important, but in a place like the Valley Metro area, where more than a dozen municipalities bump against and intersect each other, often making it hard to know which city you’re in, this can get maddening. LD 18, for example, encompasses parts of four cities: the Phoenix neighborhood of Ahwatukee, a large swatch of south Tempe, and the western parts of Mesa and Chandler. On the positive side, liberal-leaning Phoenix and Tempe both score 100 on this scale, joining Tucson as the only cities in the state with perfect scores. But Chandler and Mesa are both just barely D students, scoring 61 and 60 respectively, with no public accommodations protections of the type that would apply in the wedding cake case.  

So a bakery located in Tempe would not be allowed to discriminate against a same-sex couple but one located in Chandler is free to do so. With the way our cities run together, this means whether or not you can get legally discriminated against can literally depend on what side of the street a business is on. This makes no sense and is an undue burden on LGBTQ members of our community.

So instead of complaining about the Supreme Court’s inscrutability, we need to elect state-level officials who will pass statewide policies that will at least bring us up to the level of our neighboring states and, even better, congressional representatives who will pass a national Equality Act. These laws are going to continue being challenged in court by well-financed groups anti-LGBTQ groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (a similar case challenging Phoenix’s anti-discrimination law is working its way through the courts) but having uniform, fairly applied laws at the state and federal level will prevent them from winning on technical grounds as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

David Boyles is an English instructor at Arizona State University.