Monday, October 31, 2011

Getting the Numbers Straight...

In 2011, the ACLU of Wyoming released a report, "Inequality in the Equality State: The Damaged Juvenile Justice and Detention System in Wyoming." Unfortunately, the response to our report by Wyoming lawmakers and prosecutors has been to try and “kill the messenger.” Some have attempted to undermine the conclusions drawn in "Inequality" by questioning the data provided within the report. In fact, during a public hearing one Wyoming lawmaker recently asked, "How much money do we have to spend to tell the ACLU that it is wrong?"

Let’s be abundantly clear: None of the data in our report was researched, collected or documented by the ACLU. All data included came from the most current data available from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office and the Department of Justice. Executive Director Linda Burt recently wrote a letter to the Casper Star Tribune and to the Joint Judiciary Committee to emphasize this point.

The dispute over the data does little more than provide evidence for the need of a statewide data collection system; one of the key proposals made by our report. Moreover, reports dating back 40 years have leveled the same type of criticism about Wyoming’s juvenile justice system as our report.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a new report entitled, "No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration." Their report provides convincing evidence that incarceration of juveniles is not only ineffective, but often the source of additional dysfunction and criminality in youth. "No Place for Kids" includes the most recent data showing the Wyoming continues to have one of the highest rates of juvenile confinement in the nation.

Sadly, Governor Mead recently announced that it is doubtful that his office will propose any kind of legislation for the 2012 session on how the state should handle juvenile offenders. Read more from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle who recently wrote an article highlighting the importance of this issue.

The problem is not the numbers; it is the system itself. The juvenile justice system in Wyoming has been, and continues to be, a system that is inherently flawed and incapable of providing the most effective outcomes for both children and our community. It is tragic that legislators and public officials are using data as a smokescreen to cover up their lack of attention to this vitally important issue.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Where to Draw the Line? Redistricting Revisted

On October 21st the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee held a public hearing on the redistricting plans that have been offered over a summer of public meetings across the state. It was clear during the meeting that the long and difficult process was beginning to take its toll on committee members as tempers and patience were sometimes short. This process is complicated and one that ensures that some people will be unhappy with the outcome. Each area that has presented a plan wants their area intact and basically unchanged. Most areas believe that they are unique and different from their neighbors.

Representation Stubson (HD56) presented a plan to the committee based on the idea that Campbell County should receive another representative due to its recent growth. “Nobody gets everything they want but everyone gets something.” (Referring to his plan) Rep. Stubson said he has not consulted with other representatives in the area so there may be some disagreement with his plan. Senator Scott was concerned that Goshen County is “carved up” in this plan and asks if that could be fixed in any way. There is not a lot of ability to change given the current population numbers.

Senator Driskill (SD1) presented a regional plan for Northeastern Wyoming. Senator Driskill said that they had worked very hard to keep towns and rural areas contiguous. He did admit that the plan had some problems that would need fixing. A Sublette County Commissioner asked the committee to keep in mind the plans that most benefit the whole state.

Senator Scott made a motion to direct the Legislative Service Office (LSO) to draft legislation to accept the following plans: Laramie County – Representative Byrd; Albany County – Representative Connolly; Natrona County – County Clerks; Big Horn Basin – County Clerks; Fremont County – County Clerks; Southwestern Wyoming – Martin-Cooper; Sheridan/Johnson - County Clerks.

The two regions that are seemingly a continuing problem are Southeastern and Northwestern Wyoming. There was a great deal of discussion on the Martin-Cooper plan from the committee and the audience. The Teton County Clerk stated that HD22 in Teton County has been in dispute since the last redistricting and the Martin-Cooper plan will make current disenfranchisement of Dubois worse.

Senator Scott advised that because of federal regulations that certain standards and criteria must been met and the committee only had the choice of the “least evil” options.

Senator Case encouraged officials, LSO and county clerks to get together and examine options and come back to committee with refinements in December. The staff was directed to prepare two working proposals from Senator Scott’s motions. The proposals and maps should be on the Legislative Redistricting website within the next two weeks. The next committee meeting is scheduled for December 5 and 6th in Cheyenne.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Transparency: Wyoming Open Records/Meetings Laws Up For Debate

During the 2011 Legislative session several bills were introduced to improve Wyoming’s public records and public meeting laws. After much testimony and debate none of these bills passed into law, but a working group convened during the interim to discuss and propose compromise legislation. On October 13th the Joint Judiciary Committee met in Laramie to hear testimony on the working group’s compromise bills.

There was written testimony presented along with both associations and individuals providing verbal testimony. The Wyoming Press Association (WPA) stated all matters of public welfare, safety and financial matters must be open to public scrutiny to allow complete, honest and open discussion of these matters. It is the WPA’s belief that the public is always best served when its governing agencies are transparent. Jim Angell of the WPA stated “We are vehemently opposed to the deliberative process exemption. It keeps too much information out of the hands of people….”

The concern of most speakers was the deliberative privilege and quorum exemption inserted into the public records draft bill that would allow officials to exclude many documents from public access. The Legislative Service Office (LSO) produced a memo explaining that deliberative privilege applies to the executive branch, and denies access to: (1) a specific agency decision; (2) prepared to assist an agency official to make the agency decision, which records (3) precede in temporal sequence, the decision to which it relates.

The key question in determining whether a document is covered is whether its disclosure would expose an agency’s decision making process in such a way to discourage candid discussion with the agency and thereby undermine the agency’s ability to perform its functions. The privilege is narrowly construed. The Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) was in favor of the both the deliberative privilege and the quorum exemption which would include e-mails etc. sent to public officials, if they were not sent to the entire body.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) spoke strongly against any time frame for production of documents other than “reasonable” and for including the deliberative process exemption into the statutes. (The current statute is silent on this issue which would leave interpretation to the Wyoming Supreme Court).

The Powder River Basin Resource Council discussed effects of the draft bills on environmental records and objected to any inclusion of the deliberative process or quorum exemption.

Co-Chairman Brown said that Colorado law exempts candid and personal information, and Mr. Angell (WPA) responded that public officials should not be spared embarrassment by the law.

The University of Wyoming representatives supported the LSO comments and the working group’s draft bill. Dan Neal, Director of the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC), opposed the deliberative process and quorum exemption and supported the seven day time limit for initial response to a records request.

Fred Moline from the Farm Bureau Federation suggested that volunteer board members might be discouraged from sitting on boards by this statute.

Mark Harris (WAM) asked the committee to clarify the deliberative process law in order to allow access but law must balance interests of all. WAM supports the compromise draft bill. Rep. Barbuto questioned if WAM’s support of bill was contingent on making changes and Mr. Harris replied “absolutely not.”

Mr. Bob Bonner, publisher of the Newcastle newspaper, said that serving on boards and as public officials is tough and individuals must have the courage to make decisions in public. He also stated that any correspondence meant to influence officials should be public.

While several small amendments were made to both bills the most difficult discussion was removing the deliberative process and quorum exemption provisions. The committee voted to remove both. The working group was split on the exemption but the press was strongly opposed to the exemptions inclusion.

Read more on this important topic from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Wyoming Public Radio.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Protester Alert: Know Your Rights

In response to planned demonstrations around the country including Wyoming, as part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, the ACLU of Wyoming is making sure all protesters know their rights. Here is some basic information about the rights of protesters, although it should not substitute for specific legal advice. In addition, the ACLU of Wyoming has also produced a Bust Card with more information about what to do if you’re stopped by police.

First, it is important to differentiate between protesting with protected free speech and using civil disobedience. With civil disobedience you are choosing to break the law, and perhaps be arrested to make a point. You need to be prepared for what happens when you are arrested.

Even though protesters are clearly protected by the Constitution, the definition of “peaceful protest” may differ from person to person. Here are some valuable tips on what to do if you are confronted by a police officer or another public official during a protest.

Your Rights as a Protester:

• What you say to the police is always important. What you say can be used against you, and it can give the police an excuse to arrest you – especially if you “bad mouth” an officer.
• You are required to provide your name, address, or date of birth to a law enforcement officer upon request.
• You can be arrested for refusing to identity yourself to an officer.
• You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your car.
• You may photograph or videotape police officers performing their job in public, but do not interfere with police action.

Limitations on Speech:

• The government can limit speech by imposing “time, place, and manner” restrictions. This is most commonly done by requiring permits for meetings, rallies, and demonstrations.
• The First Amendment does not protect speech that incites violence, is obscene, or is threatening.
• It is a federal crime to threaten to harm the President, the Vice President, or a major candidate for either office.

Limitations on Action:

• If you endanger others through the manner in which you choose to protest, you can be arrested. A protest that blocks traffic is illegal without a permit.
• You do have the right to distribute literature, chant, and engage passersby in debate, but you do not have the right to block a building entrance or physically harass people.
• Protesting on private property is not protected by the law.
• Do not interfere with, touch or verbally antagonize the police.
• Avoid carrying any drugs or weapons. If you happen to be arrested you could face additional charges for their possession.

If You Are Arrested:

• Do not run or resist. It may result in additional charges.
• The whole process, from arrest to release on bail, should take about 24-36 hours.
• The police will ask you for basic biographical information and will take your fingerprints and photograph, unless you have been charged with a very minor crime.
• You will then be interviewed by a court agency so that bail can be assessed. You do not have to answer their questions, but providing accurate information will greatly speed up the process.
• You can hire an attorney to represent you at the arraignment and present arguments regarding bail.
• The judicial officer will set bail according to several factors (local connections, seriousness of the crime, how many other protestors have been arrested, etc.).

If you feel your rights have been violated, write down everything you can remember, including officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, and any other details. Get contact information from any witnesses.

Wyoming residents who believe their rights have been violated are encouraged to report these concerns to the Wyoming ACLU.