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Southeastern Wisconsin Demands Equity in Transit – Civil Rights and Environmental Justice Implications of SEWRPC

18 Jul

This week, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation took another step in speaking up for people who use public transit. In southeastern Wisconsin, plans for spending your tax dollars are being made in a way that are discriminatory and contribute harm to our environment. Here’s how our comments to a regional planning organization impact the civil rights of people who live in Milwaukee.

Here is the update from ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation’s Karyn Rotker. Ms. Rotker is the foundation’s Race, Poverty and Civil Liberties Attorney: 

Background on transportation decision-makers in government:

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are agencies created by government to address regional planning. And the big reason they’re important – especially in a segregated region like southeastern Wisconsin – is that they have a lot of say over what happens with federal transportation dollars. The MPO for the seven counties in and around Milwaukee is the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

Because we know that persons of color and persons with disabilities in southeastern Wisconsin are much more likely to depend on public transit – for work, school, medical care, and more – and because Wisconsin is spending billions of dollars to beef up highways while public transit is in crisis, we’re telling the federal government that it needs to make our planners put more focus on transit and less on adding highway capacity – which just leads to more segregated sprawl.  These maps, prepared by SEWRPC itself, show just how isolated persons of color and persons with disabilities are.

The role of the federal government:

Every four years, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have to certify that MPOs are following federal laws, including civil rights and environmental justice standards. Because we don’t think these concerns have been taken seriously in the past, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and our civil rights and environmental justice allies put together some comments that go into the background of segregation in this region along with a lot of suggestions on what needs to improve. To download our most recent comments, click on the document link at the bottom of the page.

What SEWRPC needs to change to ensure nondiscriminatory transit options:

The comments are available on the web, but some of our main points are that our regional planners need to make sure that:

• They use more federal “highway” funds to expand transit: federal rules on spending allow for the option to use funds for highway OR transit projects. SEWRPC should use flex funds to expand transit options to meet environmental justice needs in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Priorities should emphasize civil rights and environmental justice: a transportation improvement plan should look at how decisions impact minority neighborhoods and urban workers’ ability to access their jobs from affordable housing. SEWRPC doesn’t.

• Urban residents needs fair representation on the commission: The way SEWRPC is structured now, Ozaukee County – which has less than 10% of the number of residents as Milwaukee County – gets the same number of votes as Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee, where the majority of the whole region’s population of color and a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities live, gets no vote at all. For SEWRPC to fairly represent the region, the makeup of the commission should reflect populations proportionately. 

We hope that this time the federal government takes those concerns seriously. If you want to join us in speaking up for fair transit, contact me at the ACLU of Wisconsin, krotker@aclu-wi.org.

Recertification Review Comments July 16, 2012-2

Voter ID On Hold, But Residency Requirements Lead to Confusion

18 Jul

Wednesday, July 18th starts the 28-day timeframe by which Wisconsin citizens establish their residency for voting. Wisconsin voters who move after Wednesday will have to register and vote at their old address in order to cast a ballot for the August primaries.

Don’t be surprised if residency requirements seem a bit confusing. For the June 5 recall election, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, through our work with the nonpartisan Wisconsin Election Protection (@EPWisco) effort, helped to field many questions from voters about when residency restrictions began and what documents were needed to prove residency for those who were registering on Election Day. A complete list of documents needed to prove residency is available on the GAB website.

Residency requirements raised a lot of questions for college student voters who wanted to vote in the June recall, but moved away from their college residence after the end of the semester,” said Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “The new residency rules will definitely impact student voters this fall, particularly those who live or go to school in places where the primary races are the most competitive.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation’s legal department interviewed students from around the state who would be impacted by the requirements to show a photo ID to vote. Students who move to Wisconsin from out of state would be particularly impacted by voter ID if their school did not have a free student ID that complied with the law. But even students who live in Wisconsin year-around are impacted by new residency restrictions if they move between their family and college residence.

Yesterday a second judge issued an order to stop the implementation of the Voter ID law. A federal lawsuit from the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is still pending.  Read more about why we filed suit and why we amended our lawsuit to include a Voting Rights Act claim about the discriminatory racial impact of the law.

Help support the civil liberties news and opinion you get on Forward for Liberty. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today or make a tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. Your contribution keeps Forward for Liberty, action alerts via email and social media, and other nonpartisan watchdog efforts going.

Public Education Needs a Better Funding Solution to Help Disparities Problem

15 Nov

This month, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shared their new ideas on restructuring of the state’s school funding formula. For too long our state has relied on a school funding plan that is tied to property taxes which gives disproportionate funding to schools in wealthy areas. Wisconsin schools Superintendent Tony Evers’s “Fair Funding for our Future” proposal would move schools toward considering student need, not property wealth, in allocating state aid.

“We agree with Superintendent Evers that our state funding formulas need to be structured to ensure greater support for children with greater needs,” stated ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “Shifting away from the school levy tax credits – which benefit higher-wealth households more than children in need – is a start.

“However, in moving forward with this proposal, we must keep in mind that it’s not only children in poverty who have additional needs,” Ahmuty added. “We need to ensure that the state is also addressing the concerns over Wisconsin’s significant racial disparities in graduation rates throughout the state.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin believes that racial disparities in graduation rates can no longer be ignored. We support a comprehensive approach that uses limited resources in the most effective way to ensure all children across Wisconsin have the opportunity to succeed,” Ahmuty concluded.

Media reports say that at first glance, the proposal could have support from newly elected Republican leadership.

Take Action: Dane County Board to Vote on Racial Disparity Action Team

19 May

It’s no secret that Wisconsin has a real problem with the arrest and incarceration of a disproportionate number of people of color. Wisconsin is often cited as being among the top states with disproportionate minority incarceration, even when compared to neighboring states like Minnesota and Illinois. The capital city and Dane County are no exception.

When Governor Doyle created a statewide task force to research and address the problem back in May of 2008, the group’s work culminated in a report issued by the Office of Justice Assistance on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Dane County’s Office of Equal Opportunity created a task force of their own and issued their own report about the problem on the local level.

We often hear stories from people who contact the ACLU because they feel they were subject to racial profiling, police abuse or discriminatory treatment by the criminal justice system. And each person’s story stays with us while we try to navigate a sometimes frustrating system of task forces and reports. But systemic change happens one task force meeting and one page of a report at a time. And Dane County is poised to take one step forward in taking real action on the problem of disproportionate minority incarceration.

On Thursday, May 20, the county board will consider a resolution accepting the Dane County Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System and create a Recommendation Implementation Team. The meeting begins at 7:00 p.m. in room 201 of the City-County building in Madison. Dane County residents are welcome to attend and register in support of Resolution 235, 09-10 on this issue.

This is an important step in the work of local leaders to do something about the many systemic problems that result in the disproportionate minority incarceration rate in Dane County. An implementation team with teeth is needed to improve police practices, allow for common sense prosecution and sentencing alternatives (especially for juvenile offenders), improve the complaint resolution process, and set up reentry programs to stop the revolving door for people who could reoffend.

A copy of Thursday night’s meeting agenda can be found online (PDF). More information on the Dane County Office of Equal Opportunity Task Force, their research and final report with recommendations for action can also be found on their website.

If you live in Dane County, please contact your county board supervisor in support of Resolution 235, 09-10 on creating a county implementation team on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. You can find your board supervisor’s contact information on the board’s website.

Public School Legislative Action Needed Now!

6 Jan

On January 6, 2010 the ACLU of Wisconsin’s executive director Christopher Ahmuty sent the following statement to members of the Wisconsin Legislature and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. He urged them to move beyond a perceived impasse on legislation to aid the Milwaukee Public Schools. Ahmuty’s statement:

“Some media, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wispolitics.com, report that after a January 5th marathon hearing on Milwaukee Public Schools, the Wisconsin Legislature is unlikely to come up with a fix for the district’s woes any time soon. As someone who attended the hearing for eight hours, I believe the media reports misrepresent the current situation.

“While the prospect of a mayoral takeover of MPS should be dead, that doesn’t mean that the Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and legislative leaders can’t or won’t display the kind of leadership on education that both opponents and proponents of mayoral control would welcome. Mayor Barrett, in particular, can still deliver for MPS and parents and students across Wisconsin by agreeing to legislation that would address the core issues we all face.

“The school funding formula adopted by the Legislature in 1992 is a shambles and needs to be replaced. Public schools need the resources to provide an adequate education to their students. Different districts have different needs. Poor rural and urban districts (including Beloit and Racine as well as Milwaukee) have challenges that wealthier districts do not face. A new formula can help districts with concentrations of poor students, English language learners, and special needs without harming districts with more advantaged students. A good way to enhance Governor Doyle legacy on educational issues might be to revisit the 2004 recommendations of Doyle’s Task Force on Educational Excellence for additional measures that would help districts across the state.

“A proposal by State Senator Spencer Coggs and State Representative Tamara Grigsby could be modified to include provisions on funding that will help districts statewide, not just Milwaukee. Barrett and legislative leaders could be statesmen, if Barrett recognizes the needs of districts statewide, just as legislators must now recognize the urgent needs of MPS, not for control, but for support from all segments of the public and all parts of Wisconsin.”

You can read the ACLU’s testimony from the hearing (PDF) or read our press release (PDF) on-line.

We’ve blogged before about the reasons why the Mayor shouldn’t take over the Milwaukee Public Schools. We also tweeted live from yesterday’s hearing.

The ACLU of Wisconsin was quoted on the subject in OnMilwaukee. Coverage of the hearing and the mayoral takeover issue also included Milwaukee Public Radio, TMJ4, WisPolitics, the Milwaukee Business Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WISN, the La Crosse Tribune, and got a mention on Madison’s Channel 3000.

DNA Collection Expansion Too Costly, Too Invasive, and Too Distracting

9 Oct

On October 9, 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin urged state lawmakers to oppose legislation that would expand profiles in the state DNA data bank to include individuals merely arrested, not convicted, on a felony charge. State Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and State Representative Ann Hraychuck (D-Balsam Lake) are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 336, which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“DNA technology has great potential for addressing crime,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty, “but we must use it and any developing technology wisely. When police are looking for a needle in a haystack, we shouldn’t be adding more hay to the stack. But that’s exactly what SB336 does by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from individuals who have not been convicted of a violent crime.”

While it is clear that the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories’ DNA data bank system needs better management, a dramatic expansion of DNA collection without adequate checks and balances and funding at a time when the State and its counties have serious funding problems is like throwing water on a drowning swimmer.

This proposal allows the state crime laboratories to maintain the DNA profiles of persons who are never charged for as long as a year. During that year the DNA profile is likely to be shared with the federal DNA data bank (CODIS) making it virtually impossible to remove it from state, federal and even international DNA data banks. DNA collection is an invasive search that jeopardizes the constitutional rights of Americans, if it is not done judiciously.

Expanding DNA collection to arrestees has undermined the use of DNA to solve crimes across the nation. In March, the Inspector General at the United State Department of Justice released an audit that found that state laws expanding DNA collection have led to significant delays in DNA analysis. Audits in Illinois and Michigan have similarly found massive backlogs due to increased DNA collection.

And in Milwaukee, recent media reports reveal that the Sheriff David Clarke’s own department failed to collect DNA samples from over 350 convicted felons this year at the County Correctional Facility – South.

Finally, expanding DNA collection will perpetuate, if not increase, the racial disparities that are acknowledged to exist in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system. When a disproportionate number of minorities are arrested, they will create unwarranted racial disparities in the DNA data bank, making them permanent suspects who need to be investigated, while white perpetrators may not even be in the data bank.

The ACLU of Wisconsin urges legislators to re-direct their efforts to improve the state’s DNA data bank system by mandating regular audits, improving the expungement process, and concentrating on eliminating existing backlogs. Legislators should not adopt a more is always better approach when it undermines constitutional rights, without improving pubic safety in a fiscally responsible way.

To read more about this issue, see the article quoting the ACLU in the Leader-Telegram, the Wisconsin State Journal, and a critical opinion piece from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer who makes the case that our criminal justice system cannot handle the DNA collection now, let alone collecting from the thousands of people who are arrested each year. There were also ACLU quotes in the Oshkosh Northwestern and an editorial from that paper that questions the reactionary bill. An editorial was also printed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

News roundup: tickets for cursing, public financing for judges, AG says no on DP benefits case and more

21 Aug

A news roundup from the week – good civil liberties articles and issues you don’t want to miss!

Free Speech
The Kenosha News picked up the story about a proposal to allow police to ticket the use of curse words against them.

And there was more coverage of the case of the man in Crivitz who flew his flag upside down. The flag pole got knocked down by angry residents. But then supporters helped to fix it. There was more coverage on NBC 15 and on WBAY-TV.

Fair Elections
The Impartial Justice bill got approval from the state Senate this week, making it one more step closer to becoming law. While public financing of campaigns is often controversial, the big money that influences state Supreme Court elections has made the past few competitive judicial seat races a cause for concern. If judges are to remain impartial, so should their sponsorship. See more about the issue on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign website.

Lesbian and Gay Rights
Attorney General JB Van Hollen won’t represent the state in the Wisconsin Family Action challenge to the domestic partnership registry. This just means that the governor’s office will hire its own attorneys (special council). Probably will be pricey just to prove that a partnership registry with a handful of benefits isn’t anything even substantially similar to marriage.

Racial Disparity and Public Schools
Here’s a good article that explains “open enrollment” trends in Madison area schools. Open enrollment allows students to transfer to other schools if they are dissatisfied with their district. Civil rights advocates say that open enrollment leads to greater racial segregation and an erosion of Brown v. Board of Education. A quickly increasing number of students living in poverty is cited among violence and negative peer pressure as reasons to switch.

Event: Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Book Sale
Sat. Aug. 29th 12:00 Noon – 5:00 pm Orton Park Festival – near the corner of Rutledge and Few. Wisconsin Books To Prisoners Book Sale! Drop off your donated books and look over our fine collection of reading materials! All proceeds will go towards postage to send new books to those who are eager to read within the WI prison system. WI Books to Prisoners is a project of Rainbow Bookstore. For more details contact Rainbow Books (608) 257-6050.

News roundup: fair housing victory, NIMBY on detainees, blogging on profiling and more

7 Aug

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some civil liberties related news of the week…

Fair Housing
The ACLU of Wisconsin won a court case against the city of South Milwaukee to prevent the razing of an apartment building that housed a large portion of the city’s minority population. More details to come.

Close Guantanamo
Last month, some legislators introduced a bill to reject any Gitmo detainees from being housed in Wisconsin jails. It’s a move that legislators are attempting across the country to stir debate about terrorism, even though we already have many convicted terrorists behind bars on US soil (remember the perps from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Oklahoma City fed building bombing? Even Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is in Colorado). But this week, the Obama Administration was talking about the complexity of dealing with the often-uncharged detainees and that they might try to build a courthouse/supermax combo in Michigan or Kansas.

If you haven’t already, tell President Obama to reject indefinite detention and close Guantanamo asap.

Census and Redistricting
Census folks have been out in neighborhoods to confirm addresses since the spring, but the big count won’t happen until 2010. One of the big questions will be around how the count of prisoners will be used in future redistricting of politicans’ turf. A timely op-ed from the NY Times describes why counting prisoners where they are incarcerated makes redistricting complicated and unbalanced. Our own Wisconsin state legislators will be talking about Assembly Joint Resolution 63 which would exclude the census’ prisoner count from redistricting plans. The hearing will be on September 3.

Voting Rights
Senator Russ Feingold helped to introduce legislation at the federal level to end discrimination in voting rights against people with felony convictions. This interesting article gives the perspective from the southern states and describes why this voting rights issue echoes the long history of both Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.

Response to the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration bill has been good. A large coalition of organizations is behind it and to date we have only found two blog posts against it (one from Sen. Mary Lazich and another from the same folks who brought complaints about gay and lesbian books in the West Bend community library.

Speaking of voting, did you get a letter from the Government Accountability Board about your voter registration status? They are cleaning up their databases. See your city clerk to get your info updated.

Racial Profiling
Opinions are mixed about the new seat belt/racial data collection item the budget the Governor signed last month. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation cited the new law that would give police the power to pull drivers over for not wearing a seat belt as a reason for record-low traffic fatalities in July. However, the Milwaukee County Sheriff is blogging about how the racial profiling data collection is a tool of exploitation by “race hustlers” and that ACLU has nothing better to do than to sue police.

Sheriff Clarke might have missed the report and recommendations issued last year by the Office of Justice Assistance and the Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System. The commission included police, corrections and housing experts, judges, lawyers, academics, community and faith leaders. The report strongly recommended that “throughout the state, we must increase and improve the validity and reliability of data, e.g. collecting and making data available,” and that “appropriate state agencies should be directed to conduct a county-by-county baseline study of racial disparity using existing traffic citation and arrest data to determine (racial) disparity levels in the state.” The report is supposed to be a blueprint for effectively addressing our disproportionate minority incarceration rate in our state.

The reality is that racial profiling is one slice of the pie that makes Wisconsin one of the worst states for putting people of color behind bars. Anyone could suggest that a Governor’s commission and an OJA report is politically motivated. But disproportionate minority contact by law enforcement is a systemic problem. A systemic problem is bigger than a few racist cops. A systemic problem is bigger than one sheriff who feels politically targeted. And a systemic problem needs a systemic analysis. Buckle up drivers!

Gay and Lesbian Rights
The domestic partner registry began this week. In Dane County, 50 couples registered on the first day. County clerks had geared up for lines of couples waiting to register. While the Cap Times article says that applying for the registry has the same process as getting a marriage license, both the state Legislative Council and the ACLU of Wisconsin said that the registry does not equate marriage.

But organizations like the “Wisconsin Family Action” are still insisting that the domestic partnership provisions are “marriage-like” and have filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The ACLU of Wisconsin has committed to fighting a legal challenge to domestic partnerships in the state.

School boundaries, 17-year old voters, prisons for sale and more

3 Mar

News tidbits for today…

Parents gear up for school boundary decision at tonight’s school board meeting
The article in the State Journal on what’s at stake; Channel 3000 report including video on school boundary issue. The ACLU does work nationally to work for the desegregation of public schools and has more information on its website on why integration based on race and income is still a relevant fight.

Local student comments on 17-year old primary voters
In his letter to the editor, a local student comments on why he thinks he should be able to participate in a primary if he will turn 18 by election day. He refers to Senate Bill 6 which hasn’t seen political success.

Prisons for sale
An interesting editorial from the Eau Claire/Chippewa Valley Leader-Telegram on the expense of prisons.

If leave policy doesn’t define marriage, can same-sex couples share the right?
Sheboygan couple files grievance over paid leave loophole for same-sex couple’s marriage.

Editorial calls for action on racial disparity
Appleton/Fox Cities editorial on racial disparity and the war on drugs, refers to Governor’s commission.

Rep. Ryan introduces fingerprint database for employers as alternative to national ID
Don’t like Real ID? How about providing your fingerprint to get a job? Rep. Ryan’s New Employee Verification Act proposal doesn’t require a national ID, but still relies on databases and fingerprinting to get employers to hire only documented workers. Also highlights his support of the CLEAR Act.

News of the weird? Rock County woman jailed for overdue books
Article shows how the library patron’s neglect and the library’s issuance of several overdue notices leads to citations and court dates. However, as pointed out in last week’s Isthmus, getting a friend or family member out of jail can be expensive. Dane County uses a service called GovPay (PDF) to process credit cards used for bail money. Fees for using credit cards for bail can be an average of 8-10% of the bail price. Another example of how the criminal justice system is stacked against the poor.