Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wyoming High Court Disses Students

President Richard Nixon originally declared the $1 trillion “War on Drugs” in 1971. This June marked the 40th anniversary of the government’s preference for punishment over prevention. As a result, the United States holds 25% of the world’s incarcerated population and taxpayers spend nearly $70 billion each year to maintain U.S. prisons. Overwhelmingly the U.S. locks up drug offenders more than any other criminal population. The nation’s anti-drug sentiment sparked by the War on Drugs hit home in Wyoming this year.

On June 6, in Hageman et al. v. Goshen County School District No. 1, the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld a drug testing policy for 7th to 12th grade students involved in extracurricular activities, including everything from Marching Band to Soccer. Students will now be subject to random drug tests, during which an observer will watch as students undress and pee into a cup. This can be as degrading as it is invasive. In addition, test administrators have tested for pregnancy and disease without the consent of the person being tested.

Arguing that suspicionless drug testing invades their childrens’ privacy, concerned parents challenged this new policy in the Wyoming Supreme Court. The Goshen County School Board claims that it wants to combat the purported risk of drug use in their schools. According to the Goshen County School District’s Superintendent,

“The policy recognizes that many of the students participating in extracurricular activities are viewed as role models to other students and that it is important that they avoid drug and alcohol use in their position as role models. It is also the position of the Board that to achieve the goal of reducing risks of alcohol and drug abuse and to maximize the skills and talents participating in extracurricular activities, it is important that participants refrain from drug and alcohol use. It is the belief of our school district that this policy will assist in that endeavor.”

But what the Superintendent fails to recognize is that random drug testing does not promote public safety or reduce drug use, it humiliates innocent students. The ACLU’s David Rocah notes, “Nationally, student athletes have been found to have higher academic achievement and fewer disciplinary problems than non-athletes, due in large part to the tremendous discipline required to balance a full academic program and the time demanded by practice and competition schedules. Singling out athletes...is both ridiculous and unfair.”

Some say that if students are not using drugs they have nothing to fear. What students fear is not getting caught – it is the lack of trust from administrators and the loss of dignity they suffer when they are required to expose themselves even though they haven’t done anything wrong.

The more time students spend in extracurricular activities, the less time and interest they will have in using drugs. But if they are required to submit to a humiliating process as a prerequisite for participation in extra curricular activities, they may be less likely to participate. The affected students of Goshen County are guilty until proven innocent. It is unfair to treat them like criminals just because of a survey’s loose group statistic.

Like the War on Drugs, drug testing has been shown to be ineffective and very costly to taxpayers. No one is condoning the use of illegal drugs, but a war on drugs shouldn’t amount to a war on students’ privacy and constitutional rights.

For more information about what the experts say, go to:
What the Experts Say on Student Drug Testing

To read the Wyoming Supreme Court’s ruling, go to:
Hageman et al. v. Goshen County School District No. 1

Opinion written by Alex Brink, ACLU Intern
University of Wyoming, Political Science, Pre-Law

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Let’s End the Failed 40-Year War on Drugs

Last month marked the 40th anniversary since President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs.” Since then, the U.S. government has spent well over $1 trillion fighting this so-called war, and has made the U.S. the world’s largest incarcerator. These failed policies of the war on drugs have imprisoned millions, destroyed American families, and has done nothing to stem drug addiction. Moreover, the war on drugs disproportionally affects minorities and the poor.

With many states enacting sweeping changes to their budgets through austerity measures, it is surprising that many states are not aggressively trying to reduce spending by scaling back their prison populations. Currently, there are 2.3 million people in America’s prison system with a cost of around $70 billion a year to taxpayers to keep them there. America spends more money each year on incarceration related expenses than it does on higher education.

So is prosecution and imprisonment actually making people safer or reducing drug use? The answer is resoundingly, no. Drug possession is the only crime for which we lock people up because they might hurt themselves, even when they have harmed no one else. In fact, nearly half of America’s prison population is locked up for non-violent offenses; primarily for drug-related convictions. Summing it up perfectly, Neill Franklin, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told CNN:

“Despite arresting over 40 million people on drug charges since the start of the war on drugs – resulting in huge costs both in terms of dollars and in human lives – drugs today are more available, more potent and cheaper than ever.”

Drug prohibition is a failed policy that is a political choice, not a scientific one. We should treat drug addiction as a health problem, not as a crime. Prohibition and law enforcement interdiction generates an underground culture that breeds continuing and escalating violence. The drug exceptions to the Constitution have stripped citizens of fundamental liberties and protections. This war on drugs has become a war on the nation’s citizens, families and communities imprisoning millions and destroying families leaving addicts with few options for rehabilitation and treatment.

The war on drugs has effectively swollen America’s prison system to an unsustainable capacity. From 1970 to 2005, the U.S. prison population rose 700%, a rate far outpacing that of general population growth and crime rates. The United States now has over one-quarter of the world's prison population, despite only having 5% of the world's total population. Overcrowding in California’s prisons has become so egregious that the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling ordering the state of California to substantially reduce its prison population. Learn more about the ACLU's effort to combat mass incarceration.

Drug reform policies must be developed that address the needless criminalization of non-violent drug users, provide effective, readily available treatment and education programs, and stop ineffective knee-jerk laws that are unproductive and waste taxpayer’s money to the tune of billions of dollars each year.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, that, “Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. The single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for non-violent offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.”

It’s time to find new solutions to the war on drugs by: addressing drug addiction through providing better treatment programs, improving public safety, reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and dramatically reducing our prison population.

Ready to end the war on drugs? Join the ACLU and over a thousand others from around the world on November 2-5 at the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles.

For a hilarious spin on this important topic, watch comedian Elon James White team up with the ACLU to "Just Say NO" to the war on drugs.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Redistricting: Regional meetings continue...

There are two common themes in all of the redistricting meetings being held by the joint corporations committee: Every region is adamant that they don’t want any changes in their current districts and that they are unique compared to the rest of the state. Most of those testifying to the committee feel their area should have a waiver from the legal population requirements for one reason or another. The other commonality in these meetings is that the majority of those present are either current or past legislators or public officials. Unfortunately, voters seem to have little interest in this very important issue.

The Powell meeting was held at Northwest Community College and a small group (17) of legislators and public officials participated. All meetings begin with a short tutorial on redistricting presented by the attorney general’s office, which includes a guide to information available on the legislative redistricting web site.

Chairman Case opened the Powell meeting by stating that the committee has made no decisions but is now open to all suggestions and any plan that is sponsored by at least one legislator will go on the web site for review. The Big Horn Basin has lost population so the senate and house districts will have to add population in some way; in addition, the Basin has significant geographical constraints that will make redistricting in that area difficult.

Senator Scott believes locally grown plans are the best plans rather than the committee coming up with a plan. He suggested that the easiest way to add population is to take from Fremont County, as it has gained population and will have to lose some to meet numbers criteria.

Testimony from those present from Big Horn Basin:
1. Senator Coe: Big Horn Basin is a unique area and should be treated as a unit. He also asks if there is a possibility of a waiver of the numbers for Big Horn Basin. States the legislators in the area have been doing a lot of work on their plan.
2. Representative Quarberg: We have looked at different options and would like to remain whole as they are at minus population levels. The legislators have had conversations with surrounding counties and all the conversations have been cordial and after deliberation it seems that adding population from Fremont County would be the best option. (Possibly from Riverton)

There was also testimony that Meeteetsee wanted to stay in Park County as they had common interests with Park County and there would be a fight to stay within that county. Chairman Case encouraged local citizens to get together and iron out local issues of redistricting. Representative Patton concurred and said the committee was not looking for a lawsuit but for reasonable solutions.

Representative Bonner stated the entire Big Horn Basin was committed to staying whole and keeping its current representation. Representative Harvey echoed these sentiments asking the committee to please keep Big Horn community intact. The strengths of the area are that they all work together very well.

Representatives Quarberg and Grear made the presentation to the committee in Worland with a group of 14 citizens and public officials in attendance. Testimony in Worland:

1. Representative Campbell from Fremont County says they don’t have an actual plan yet but have been approached by several other counties to work on one.
2. HD33 makes Fremont County unique as it meets the criteria for a majority minority district and must be protected.
3. The attitude of Fremont County will be to be open to all suggestions as they understand that there will be many changes in order to work out districts.

Dan Neal from the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC) commented on the fact that the ‘one person, one vote’ principle is an important principal, and statements from a committee member that “greedy” people use this to make money off the government were inappropriate. This same committee member made this comment at both meetings saying that if waivers are given to regions, greedy organizations will use it as an excuse to sue and make money. Read more on the ESPC standing up for the 'one person, one vote' principle.

Julie Freese, the Fremont County Clerk, presented Freemont County’s redistricting requests. The County Clerks are working on a redistricting plan to present to the state. Ms. Freese emphasized the importance or protecting HD 33 as minority voting district.

There was testimony that there is little community of interest between Dubois and Jackson. “Jackson Hole might as well be in Greenwich Village, New York.” Dubois wants to be with Fremont County, as they have more of a community of interest with them and feel that have not gotten much attention from current representatives.

“Redistricting is like whack-a-mole. If you change one line, something else has to move too.” (Chairman Case)

Senator Bebout urged the committee to push back against the law because community of interest is more important than deviation in the numbers. Representative Campbell expressed concerns about the confusion with ballots if the county is divided up.

There were 14 in attendance at the Rawlins redistricting meeting. Senator Hicks had asked the clerk to put together a proposal to consider. The proposal is similar to the Martin/Cooper proposal already presented to the committee. The spirit is to align with the principal of community of interest. Representative Steward supports the idea that all representatives and senators run in 2012, and says there is no support for splitting Rawlins’ districts.

The next hearing will be an evening meeting held in Torrington on August 15th. There is some discussion that the committee may add additional sites for hearings.

Click here to watch ACLU’s Laughlin McDonald talk about how politicians can use 'stacking, cracking, and packing' to gerrymander voting districts.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Census Blocks, County Lines, Communities of Interest…Oh My!

Rock River was at the center of a verbal tug of war as legislators from the Corporations Committee listened to redistricting suggestions in Laramie on Tuesday morning, June 28. Rock River is in Albany County, but do residents more closely identify as voters with neighbors in Laramie or in Carbon County?

Legislators must preserve a “one person, one vote” distribution as they consider how to draw lines around new voting districts across the state. They also apply traditional redistricting principles, including 1) compactness, 2) contiguity, 3) preservation of county and municipal lines, 4) maintaining communities of interest (specific groups with shared interests/identity), and 5) maintaining cores of existing districts, and incumbency protection or competitiveness. For more information on these principles and redistricting in general, read the ACLU’s report, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Redistricting But Were Afraid to Ask.

So why do voting districts in Wyoming resemble a geographic jigsaw puzzle? It really depends on what your priorities are, and legislators made some of theirs known on June 28.

Senator Nicholas pointed out that it may be unfair to voters to redraw lines in order to preserve the seats of incumbents, and that lines should be drawn in order to best reflect what the community wants. For example, he says, Albany County prides itself on sending two Democrats and two Republicans to the Wyoming House, and lines are carefully drawn to preserve that split, which seems to best represent the community.

Albany County Clerk, Jackie Gonzales, explained a proposed plan for the county that nearly preserves existing districts, stretching or constricting them a bit in one way or the other to reflect changes in population.

Representative Hunt offered a completely new plan, which places the greatest weight on drawing districts that, as closely as possible, follow county lines. Counties with small populations would be supplemented by residents near the line of a neighboring county. The beauty of his plan, he suggests, is that no district goes over a 3.4% deviation from the “one person, one vote” principle. The closer the deviation gets to 10%, the more likely it is that a court may want a darned good explanation.

Tracy Hunt, Representative Hunt’s driver for the day (and dad on all days), said his son’s plan “sets up a firewall against the chaos” he sees in plans that just modify existing districts.

Representative Byrd expressed concerns that a plan that only takes into account county lines, though, fails to recognize communities of interest. Say, for example, Rock River.

The Cheyenne meeting that evening covered many of the same themes as the Albany County meeting. The Laramie County Clerk’s office offered a proposed plan for redrawing Laramie County voting districts. The most tense moment came when Representative Dan Zwonitzer expressed his concerns over the proposed changes, saying that he greatly disagreed with the population numbers in his district. Senator Johnson reassured everyone in the room that, “Nothing is set in concrete. Please be patient and know that nothing will be decided immediately.” Rep. Illoway reemphasized this point by informing attendees that, “Public meetings are for fact-finding, and that no official votes will be taken until this fall.”

In addition to Representative Hunt’s statewide plan which embeds most districts within county lines, Senator Cooper and Senator Martin brought forth the Cooper/Martin alternative plan for western Wyoming districts.

So where do you draw the lines? Give redistricting a try on the Redistricting Plan Viewer on the legislature's redistricting webpage.

And tell your representatives what you think by attending the next community meeting coming up on July 12. For a complete schedule, check out our May 5th blog post.