Archive for March, 2012

Meet the New Northwest Florida Regional Organizer

Sara Latshaw
Northwest Florida Regional Organizer, ACLU of Florida

Life has certainly changed from the days of speedy mopeds, spicy curries, and the balmy offices of Art Relief International. My time in Thailand as the Executive Director of Cultural Canvas Thailand and Art Relief International has come to an end. While I can say that the transition between two very different worlds is not an easy one, it is something that I could not be more excited about.

Last week, I began my new job as Regional Organizer for the ACLU of Florida. With each passing day, my enthusiasm grows—a likely effect of the contagious excitement to preserve the rights and liberties of others that seems central to everyone working here. The roles that I will be playing our area continue to unfold as I delve into the diversity of projects in which the ACLU is involved.

Half of my time will be dedicated to developing, organizing, and implementing advocacy campaigns to advance and defend the rights of LGBT people in Northwest Florida. My first mission is to reduce discrimination in high schools, working with educators to prevent bullying and facilitate student-led Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). GSAs will be a fantastic way to make school a safer place for students.

In addition to my work with the LGBT rights, I will be working on other ACLU priority issues, including criminal justice reform, women’s rights, and drug policy reform. I am learning about Florida’s struggle with over-incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline—issues that I am eager to work to counteract.

I see the work that the ACLU is doing and it is important. I am grateful to be involved with such a thoughtful and passionate organization. While the sunny, bustling ACLU office in downtown Pensacola is a huge change from my life in Thailand, I can say one thing for certain: I feel at home.


Howard Simon on the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin

Howard Simon
Executive Director, ACLU of Florida

When news broke about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the decision of the Sanford, Florida Police Department not to press charges of any sort against the shooter, George Zimmerman, the ACLU added its voice to those who were calling for a more thorough outside investigation.

Our Mid-Florida Regional Director Joyce Hamilton Henry was one of five speakers at the first rally in Sanford, held at the Allen AME Chapel.

Our concerns about the inept work of local police and prosecutors has been heightened by reports that the detective investigating the shooting death of Trayvon had recommended the filing of charges, but was overruled by the States Attorney for Seminole County.

And now, with so much of the conversation (witness, that has collected approximately two million signatures on a petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, essentially defining Zimmerman’s arrest as justice for Trayvon),we have tried to change the focus of the discussion.

The op-ed below the break, which is reprinted from the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) focuses on:

  •  Not putting excessive faith in the criminal justice system;
  • It doesn’t always render justice or too frequently it renders inadequate justice
  •  We need to use this incident to address (a) problems of race, (b) problems with local law enforcement, and (c) America’s gun culture

Questions in teen’s shooting need to go deeper

Continue reading ‘Howard Simon on the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin’

Investigation of Trayvon Martin’s Death and Police Response Must Be Fair, Thorough, Unbiased

Joyce Hamilton Henry
Mid-Florida Regional Director, ACLU of Florida

Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Joyce Hamilton Henry, and Sybrina Fulton

(Pictured above, from left to right: Rev. Al Sharpton, Joyce Hamilton Henry and Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, at the gathering.)

Tens of thousands of people were in Sanford, Florida, last night — coming together over the tragedy of the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. (Pictured above, from left to right: Rev. Al Sharpton, Joyce Hamilton Henry and Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, at the gathering.)

National political, social and media leaders joined the Martin family in seeking justice and speaking to and for a community in pain. As Mid-Florida Regional Director of the ACLU, I was there and I can tell you that the emotion and energy in the crowd was intense as they demanded justice for Trayvon.

In the hours before and since the rally last night, two events unfolded which will shape this ongoing situation: it was announced that a state attorney from outside the area will help lead the official inquiry, and Sanford’s Police Chief, Bill Lee, announced he would temporarily step aside.

Early on, we highlighted the need for an unbiased, professional, thorough outside investigation into the shooting and called on state and federal leaders to act. Thankfully, the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Department of Justice have announced that they will undertake an investigation. These agencies should investigate not only what happened to Trayvon, but the response of local law enforcement to his killing. With the addition of outside eyes on the Martin shooting, we don’t want to lose sight of the need to not only uncover what happened that tragic night but also review the initial local investigation itself. Unanswered and very troubling questions about the police response remain.

Bringing in a state attorney from outside Sanford is clearly a hopeful  development and their  expected professionalism will help the FBI and FDLE conduct the fair and objective investigation that is needed. The governor and law enforcement leaders deserve credit for making this happen.

Now that outside experts are looking over the evidence and hopefully reviewing the investigation itself, we must give them the room they need to do the job right.

Justice is best served in this tragedy by a thorough and unbiased investigation of both the shooting and the initial investigation by the Sanford Police Department.

TAKE ACTION: Please join us in calling on Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to ensure that this investigation is done right. We deserve fair, thorough and unbiased answers.

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(Note: This piece also appears on the ACLU National Blog.)

Justice for Trayvon

Joyce Hamilton Henry
Mid-Florida Regional Director, ACLU of Florida

Tonight the author attended a gathering at the Allen Chapel AME Church in Sanford, Florida. The following is an excerpt of her remarks:

As we learn more about the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin, concerns are being raised about the manner, thoroughness and neutrality of the investigation by the police in Sanford, Florida.

The concern is justified.

To understand it, it helps to know how we got here. Not the events of Feb. 26, which ended in Trayvon’s death, but a sad history in Florida where justice for all has been illusive – and justice for some impossible. Too often, crimes with clear, undeniable racial motives were swept under the rug or overlooked while families and communities waited in vain for justice. So, when Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, the person in charge of the investigation, tells a reporter “the investigation is color blind,” there is reason to be concerned.

Justice is supposed to be blind. Investigators should not be.

Any real investigation worthy of a professional law enforcement agency must consider the facts. And if racial biases or stereotypes played a part in what happened on Feb. 26, that’s a fact.

Communities of color and disadvantage know too well that some people who say they are color blind really mean they only see in one direction – conveniently overlooking how race and attitudes about race affect so many things. There’s a big difference between not seeing race and seeing what you want to see. When Lee says he’s being color blind, it’s time to bring in outside eyes.

It’s welcome news that federal, state and local law enforcement and a grand jury are looking over the shoulder of the police. Their inquiries need to be as much about the killing of Trayvon as the official response, including any departures from standard procedure in a homicide, and the professionalism and possible biases of Sanford police.

Justice demands at least that much.

Just as troubling, by announcing there is no evidence to dispute shooter George Zimmerman’s account that he was acting in self-defense, it appears Lee may have already made up his mind. If Lee has indeed finished his assessment, he must tell us what led to his conclusion. Lee needs to explain how a man armed with a gun and weighing about 80 pounds more than an unarmed teenager came to fear for his life – so much so that it was necessary to shoot and kill Trayvon in order to protect himself.

And if authorities are still investigating Trayvon’s killing, Sandford Police Chief Lee should stop commenting on the case. Announcing conclusions before all the questions are answered, at a minimum, is premature and superficial. Telling part of the story – making conclusions in public – isn’t answering questions, it’s raising them.

All the questions raised by this tragic shooting must be answered: fairly, accurately, and with justice in mind.

Ending “Florida’s dirty shameful secret”

ImageMaria Kayanan
Associate Legal Director, ACLU of Florida

It was Florida’s dirty shameful secret:  for decades, Florida women who entered jail when pregnant often gave birth under extraordinarily inhumane conditions, with their hands and feet cuffed, and sometimes, with leg irons.  Doctors’ and nurses’ pleas to remove the restraints fell on deaf ears, as the corrections officers called the shots.

 In 2009, I received a letter from a woman in jail on the west coast of Florida; she told me that during labor, both of her hands and one foot were cuffed to the hospital bedrails.  During active labor, when it was time to push, she couldn’t pull up on her legs.  Ask any obstetrical nurse or physician:  that’s bad for the woman, and bad for the baby.  Then, after her baby was born, her handcuffs prevented her from holding her newborn.  Again – bad for the woman; bad for the baby.  

 This was just one letter I received from women in jail – there were many others, all of which told the same stories of the woman’s restraint during labor, delivery, and recovery.  Not all county jails subscribed to this cruel practice:  some had compassionate birthing practices that involved midwives and doulas.  However, there were no uniform guidelines, no statewide standards.  Whether a woman was shackled during labor and delivery depended on where she was incarcerated, and whether the corrections officer showed any compassion.

 But thanks to a bill awaiting Governor Scott’s approval, that’s all going to change.  The bill, sponsored in 2012 by Senator Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) and Rep. Betty Reed (D-Tampa) is named the “Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act,” and bans the use of restraints on prisoners during labor, delivery, and recovery unless they present a true security risk or flight risk.  In 2011, the bill, sponsored by then-Senator Tony Hill and Rep. Reed, passed the Florida Senate unanimously but stalled in the House.

Jail is a terrible place to be pregnant.  Now, however, women in Florida’s jails who have the misfortune of giving birth during their jail terms will at least be free of the hobbling restraints that were the norm rather than the exception across Florida.  Better for the women; better for their babies.  Thank you, Senators Joyner, Hill, and Rep. Reed, on behalf of all the women behind bars who can’t convey to you their personal thanks. We’ll tell them how you, and the entire Florida Legislature, stood up for them and their babies.


Debating Rights Restoration: Myths vs. Civics

Guest Contributor: Desmond Meade
President, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

On Thursday, March 8th, Florida International University College of Law’s chapters of the American Constitution Society and the Federalist Society held a debate concerning Felon Disfranchisement. Marc Mauer, president of The Sentencing Project and Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity offered their views on whether ex-felons should have the right to vote. A spirited debate which got testy at times, gave the audience an excellent view of the polarized viewpoints on an issue in the spotlight in Florida because of the upcoming Presidential election, the role that Florida will play in that election, and the current clemency policies of Governor Scott and his Cabinet.

Thursday’s event promoted a moral and legal discussion not just on felon voting rights, but on how disenfranchisement policies are tied to broader questions about the role of democracy in shaping political and social equality. Students pointed out the effects of systemic racism and the war on drugs to criticize Florida’s disenfranchisement policies, and expressed concern over the unprecedented expansion of the US prison system.

It instantly became apparent that in order to justify felon disfranchisement, a negative image of impacted individuals had to be developed. From the viewpoint of Mr. Clegg, it would seem that all felons were terrorist assassins who burned, and pillaged our cities. This fictional felon created by Mr. Clegg became the basis of his position that the fundamental right to vote should be denied to all felons, even after they have repaid their debt to society.

Mr. Clegg eventually had to admit that the fictional character he created was a grossly inaccurate depiction of the typical individual impacted by these policies. Mr. Clegg, however, chose to ignore the detrimental impact felon disfranchisement have on the families of formerly incarcerated individuals, and the communities in which they live. Mr. Clegg was unable to reason away the reality that every time a person is disenfranchised, their community loses a voice, and for every voice that a community loses, the more insignificant that community becomes in the eyes of elected officials who are driven by votes.

Florida currently has over 1 million disenfranchised residents, and that number will continue to grow due to clemency policies that make civil rights restoration virtually impossible. That’s over 1 million individuals who, while paying taxes, are prevented from voting, and are severely restricted from obtaining safe and affordable housing.

In the debate, Mr. Mauer correctly surmised that the basic principles of civility and citizenship dictate that all individuals are entitled to have the right to vote; the right to have their voices heard, and participate in the decisions that govern the society in which they live. Mr. Mauer also exposed the absurdity of the unfounded notion that civil rights restoration is a threat to the voting process. The fact is that the real threats to voting are preventing or restricting eligible voters from casting their vote freely, and adopting policies that disenfranchise citizens, in many cases for life.

In a recent CNN online poll, only 20% of responders believed that an ex-felon should not regain their rights to vote.

Obviously the majority of Americans do not believe in Mr. Clegg’s “boogie man” convict.

(Bobby Joe Bracy contributed material for this post).

Guest Post: Legislature Adjourns Without Passing A Single Anti-Abortion Bill

Guest Contributor: Martha Jackovics
Beach Peanuts

UterusDespite all the legislation from last year’s session of the Florida Legislature aimed at blocking abortions in the state, no abortion bills were passed in the 2012 session, but not for lack of trying. Ten anti-abortion bills were introduced this year, compared to 18 bills introduced last year.

Considering the push against women’s health issues and abortion throughout the country in states controlled by Republicans, this was a win for women’s health in Florida.

Consider last year’s session:

Abortion bills from 2011:

ABORTION — CHOOSE LIFE (Passed): Proceeds from Choose Life license plates will go to Choose Life Inc. for assisting pregnant women, instead of counties. (SB 196/HB 501)

ABORTION — HEALTH CARE EXCHANGES (Passed): Health care plans created through the federal health care law cannot offer coverage for abortions. (SB 1414/HB 97)

ABORTION — PARENTAL NOTIFICATION (Passed): Requires minors seeking a judicial waiver for parental notification of an abortion to get the waiver in district court rather than a wider-reaching appeals court. (SB 1770/HB 1247)

ABORTION — THIRD-TRIMESTER BAN (Failed): Expands ban on third-trimester abortions to include viability of the fetus. Doctors who perform abortions would be required to receive ethics training. (SB 1748/HB 1397)

ABORTION — ULTRASOUND (Passed): Women preparing to undergo an abortion must be offered the opportunity to have the results and images of an ultrasound explained to them. Woman can decline to see the image. (SB 1744/HB 1127)

During the 2012 session, at least ten anti-abortion bills were introduced. Among them, one introduced by Republican Rep. Charles Van Zant which would have made it a felony to perform an abortion unless strict criteria were met, and with no exceptions for rape or incest.  Another would have outlawed race and sex based abortions. The “fetal pain” bill was introduced, which would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks. There was also a bill that women’s health advocates called an “omnibus anti-choice bill” because it contained several measures that would make it harder for women to obtain a legal abortions and harder for providers to provide the legal service.

The race and sex based abortion bill was introduced despite the lack of  evidence that such a thing occurs, and it was much the same with the fetal pain bill. The fetal pain bill would have made no exceptions in the case of rape or incest, even though research on whether a fetus can feel pain have been deemed neither scientifically nor constitutionally sound.

The Omnibus abortion bill, a final attempt to “clean up” several parts of abortion bills that didn’t pass last year also failed. The bill also contained the failed fetal pain measure from this year.

As the session adjourned, Planned Parenthood released the following statement:

Tonight the Florida Legislature formally adjourned the 2012 Legislative Session without passing any legislation that would limit women’s access to essential health care services.

“We are encouraged that legislators put women’s health before politics by rejecting efforts to target health centers that provide the reproductive health care and family planning services that women need,” said Judith Selzer, Vice President for Public Policy at the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.  “Given that Floridians continue to be plagued by the lagging economy and a growing lack of access to health care, legislators must continue to reject attempts to make it even harder for women to access health care services.”

This is not to say they won’t be back at it next session. Outside of the legislature, there’s also another attempt at the push for a “Personhood” amendment looming for 2014.

But at least for now, on the close of this year’s legislative session, this is a win for women’s health in Florida.