• October 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Marissa Liebling, Legislative Director, Project Vote

    The year before a major election has brought about a flurry of legislative activity impacting voter eligibility and election procedures. Each week, Project Vote tracks such legislation and voting-related news throughout the country. Our biannual Legislative Threats and Opportunities report summarizes and highlights the information obtained from three areas: our ongoing bill tracking effort, our work with local advocates and officials, and a compilation of information on related factors like the partisan makeup of legislatures and state election officials. The report provides an important snapshot of activity by issue area and by state so we can reflect on current trends and prepare for the future.

    The good news: Recent policy trends favor voting rights expansion and election modernization over unnecessary restrictions that limit access to our democracy. Comparing the rates of both bill introduction and successful bill passage, proposals expanding voter access far outpaced those seeking to limit and restrict the right to vote. While positive legislation covered many areas, from restoring voting rights for disenfranchised felons to providing early voting, online registration and automatic registration dominated the year.

    Automatic registration leaped atop the priority list for many advocates and lawmakers. Oregon passed a law enabling the automatic registration of eligible residents using information collected by the state’s motor vehicle agency. An avalanche of registration modernization legislation followed, with California passing a similar law. While proposals vary in name and substance, automatic registration and electronic transfer policies seek to improve outdated processes and shift the burden now on citizens to proactively opt-in and maintain records in order to exercise a fundamental right.

    If automatic registration is trendy, online registration is becoming the norm. This year, online registration laws passed in three states, while two states launched online registration sites through administrative action. More states are expected to bring registration online in the coming year. Efficient and convenient, paperless registration sites are now available in a majority of states. 

  • October 27, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    In The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen writes that deferred-prosecution agreements, which were meant to give individual defendants a second chance, are now disproportionately used to protect corporations.

    Ben Wofford reports on a recent Politico Magazine survey that found urban and suburban city leaders are deeply concerned about gun violence and want stronger federal regulation of firearms.

    California has adopted a policy for reviewing inmate gender reassignment requests that could become a model for prison systems across the country, reports the Washington Blade’s Chris Johnson.

    In the latest installment of The Atlantic’s symposium on Reconstruction, Annette Gordon-Reed discusses how white supremacist ideology in academia allowed Jim Crow policies to flourish.

  • October 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Senior Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice

    Many jurisdictions are dependent on municipal and judicial fines to fund prosecutors, public defenders, clerks and courts. The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on practices in Ferguson, Mo. is a telling example. Ferguson police and courts, the report found, operated, “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.” Soon after the report’s release, Ferguson’s police chief, municipal judge and city manager all stepped down. Such practices are not limited to Ferguson as cash strapped cities and states turn ever increasingly towards low-income individuals to fund the criminal justice system.

    In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt as a result of their involvement in the criminal justice system. How did this happen? Well, one reason is that as the country’s criminal justice costs skyrocketed, and the burden to fund the system fell on the system’s users. As noted in a recent Brennan Center report, the country’s criminal justice costs — mostly policing, jails, prisons and courts — rose from $35 billion in 1982 to more than $265 billion in 2012 — a growth of over 650 percent. It’s worth noting that at least 80 percent of state court defendants are indigent, and cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers. Nonetheless, fees are imposed for a wide range of services, including courts, jails, prisons and diversion and probation programs. In Florida, for example, it costs $50 to apply for a public defender if one is charged with a misdemeanor and $100 for a felony.

    States and local governments are crafting creative solutions to reduce the burden of criminal justice debt on its citizens.

    To help alleviate the problem of imposing fees and fines that will never be collected, and to clear out their backlogs of warrants, some courts have adopted amnesty programs for low-level offenses. Defendants show up for court, and their fines and fees are forgiven or significantly reduced.

  • October 26, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Sharon LaFraniere and Andrew W. Lehren discuss recent studies that show that police officers are more likely to stop black drivers for no discernable reason and also more likely to use unsolicited force against a driver who is black.  

    The Editorial Board at The New York Times discusses the law school debt crisis and its implications for the legal profession as a whole.   

    Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate exposes the negligence and incompetence that characterizes America’s lethal injection system.

    In The New York Times, Irin Carmon simplifies and explains Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s guiding vision – “have a radical aim, but proceed with caution.”  

  • October 23, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    Ed Pilkington at The Guardian laments the resurrection of a modern-day debtors’ prison in Biloxi, Miss.

    At EdSource, John Fensterwald previews Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association and discusses the potential implications for public employee unions.

    Tracy Connor at NBC News reports that the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to reduce the cost of prison phone calls.

    In the Los Angeles Times, Richard L. Hasen argues that federal courts should take action to ensure that an individual’s voting rights are not determined by the prevailing political ideology of the area in which they live.

    Andrew Keshner writes in the The New York Law Journal that the Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Ann Donnelly as a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of New York. Donnelly’s nomination was blocked twice before as part of a larger obstructionist effort by Senate Republicans. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) testimony on her behalf can be read here

    There are currently 66 federal judicial vacancies, and 29 are considered judicial emergencies. There are 27 pending nominees. For more information see