Guest Post

  • February 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative; winner of the 2014 David Carliner Award

    Receiving the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Award last year was a huge honor and a wonderful celebration of the connection between criminal justice reform and other progressive movements. For too long, progressive movements have all worked in isolation from each other, but ACS and this award have, like its namesake, celebrated our common struggle for justice and human rights.

    I went to law school a decade ago when prison populations were going up and up, and up seemed like the only future. Both the powers that be and the established progressive movement were ignoring criminal justice advocates. The award, named for human rights champion David Carliner, represents an important milestone because it recognizes criminal justice issues – and the victories we have won together over the last decade – as essential victories for the broader progressive movement.

    I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to challenge policies that were doing more to exacerbate existing racial and economic disparities in our country than they were doing to respond to crime.  I wanted to collaborate with other criminal justice experts – such as incarcerated people, their families and lawyers – to force our country to confront the fact that our criminal justice system has grown so large that it punishes everyone, including people who are not directly involved in the criminal justice system.

    Take the U.S. Census. The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as if they were willing residents of the prison location. This would be nothing more than a good item of statistical trivia if there weren't so many people in prison and if we didn't use this flawed data to draw legislative districts. Taking more than 2 million incarcerated people, who are mostly people of color, and deliberately counting them in the wrong communities systematically changes the legislative districts and therefore every political decision our legislatures make. "Prison gerrymandering" is a very subtle but ever-present thumb on the scale of our democracy. That's a large part of why state legislatures prioritize the demands of excessive punishment over more sensible alternatives.

  • January 30, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Kelli Garcia, Senior Counsel, National Women's Law Center

    Between 2011 and 2013, politicians in 30 states enacted 205 abortion restrictions, ranging from outright and unconstitutional abortion bans to laws intended to make it impossible for providers to offer abortion. Last year alone, fifteen states adopted 26 new restrictions that limit or impede access to abortion, making it harder and sometimes impossible for women to exercise their constitutionally protected right to abortion. This wave of anti-abortion activity has dramatically changed the country’s landscape for women seeking an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2013, more than half the states had at least four abortion restrictions in effect

    These multiple restrictions compound and, for many women, make it impossible to obtain an abortion. In Texas, for example, a woman seeking a medication abortion has to make four separate trips to the provider because of the restrictive laws that exist in that state. She is forced to undergo and view an ultrasound, listen to a description of the fetus' development, wait 24 hours, and then has to make two trips for medication abortion because Texas forces providers to use an outdated protocol rather than following current evidence-based medical practice. And this is if she can actually reach a provider - one out of six women in Texas will have to travel 150 miles or more to reach an abortion provider.

    These laws impose unnecessary monetary costs. These costs are particularly devastating to low-income and poor women who already face significant barriers accessing care. The cost of the abortion itself can be prohibitive, especially when politicians force women to pay out of pocket by prohibiting insurance coverage of abortion. Then, women must arrange for and receive time off work, most likely without pay. They might have to pay for childcare, find a place to stay or make multiple roundtrips to distant clinics, and/or find reliable transportation.  As one provider aptly noted, “[T]he vast majority of women can’t add those travel costs to the cost of an abortion or they can’t take off work.” These restrictions chip away at women’s right to abortion by creating so many barriers that abortion becomes unobtainable.

  • January 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Eric Berger, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law

    The U.S. Supreme Court last week granted certiorari in Glossip v. Gross, in which plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure.  Glossip raises important questions about how the Eighth Amendment standard announced by the Court in 2008 in Baze v. Rees applies to experimental drug combinations.  However, the questions presented in Glossip do not directly address the crucial, related question of whether states must disclose their lethal injection procedures to inmate plaintiffs.  To this extent, the Court is putting the cart before the horse.

    Indeed, many death row inmates lack important information about the procedures with which the state plans to execute them.  The problem appears to be worsening as states increasingly conceal more details of their execution procedures.  Courts, for their part, usually reject inmates’ requests to learn this information. 

    In a recent law review article, I argue that these state practices and judicial responses are wrong.  To be sure, some execution procedures, upon closer examination, may be safe and constitutional, but some certainly are not, and courts have no way of distinguishing the safe from the dangerous without inquiring into the details of the procedure.  To this extent, courts have repeatedly blessed execution procedures about which they know virtually nothing.

  • January 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law.

    *This post is part of the ACSblog King v. Burwell symposium.

    During oral argument in the Fair Housing Act case this past week, Justice Antonin Scalia explained how another high-profile case coming later this term—King v. Burwell—ought to be decided. The King case involves the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act. The challengers argue that the ACA does not authorize tax credits for people purchasing insurance on exchanges set up by the federal government rather than the states. They rely on a provision in the law that says such credits are available for insurance bought “through an Exchange established by the State.” Read in isolation, that provision would seem to suggest that the credits are available only on the 14 exchanges run by the states, not in the 36 states with exchanges run by the federal government.

    In the hearing in the Fair Housing Act case, however, Justice Scalia—whose vote is almost certainly necessary for the ACA challengers to win their case—elucidated why the ACA challengers should lose. The Court’s obligation in interpreting a statute, Scalia said, is to “look at the entire law,” not just “each little piece” in isolation. “We have to make sense of the law as a whole,” Scalia insisted. Whether or not something is allowed by a statute can only be determined “when all parts are read together.”

    Anyone who reads the “whole law” in the ACA case would easily conclude that credits are available on the federally run exchanges. Start with the basic objectives of the law. According to the authors of the law, “The Affordable Care Act was designed to make health-care coverage affordable for all Americans, regardless of the state they live in. Providing financial help to low- and moderate-income Americans was the measure’s key method of making insurance premiums affordable.” That basic goal would be completely undermined if federally run exchanges couldn't offer the tax credits.

  • January 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law, and President of the Center for Progressive Reform. Steinzor is also author of the new book, Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction from Cambridge University Press.

    Candice Anderson was 21 when she lost control of her Chevrolet Cobalt in a moving stall caused by a defective ignition switch, drove into a tree, and killed her fiancé. Two years later, in 2006, Texas police charged her with reckless homicide. Her parents liquidated their retirement account to pay for her defense. She pled guilty, spent five years on probation, paid $10,000 in fines, and had to live with the shame of the crime on top of the grief of the accident. In 2014, General Motors (GM) sent Anderson a letter explaining that her accident was the company’s fault. A judge in Texas cleared her criminal record a few weeks ago.

    The Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into GM’s conduct and the next attorney general will decide whether and how to charge the company. President Obama’s nominee, Loretta Lynch, will need to make a break with the misguided policies of her predecessor, Eric Holder, when the GM case hits her desk.

    Under Holder, the Justice Department has handled white collar criminal cases involving the largest companies in the world with “deferred prosecution agreements,” a form of settlement that does not require the defendant to acknowledge any criminal culpability, no matter how heinous the crime. Instead, these special deals require the defendant to pay large sums of money in civil penalties. Given their ample financial resources, such sums end up being an affordable cost of doing business. 

    Deferred prosecution agreements undermine the straightforward application of white collar criminal laws that punish everything from racketeering and fraud to deadly violations of health, safety, and environmental laws. The Obama Justice Department has entered roughly twice the number of deferred prosecution agreements as the George W. Bush administration and has been rightly criticized for embracing the corrupt notion that some firms may be “too big to jail.”