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Overcoming the Unprecedented: Southern Voters’ Battle Against Voter Suppression, Intimidation, and a Virus

March 16, 2021

This report describes the 2020 elections in five Southern states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi—with a particular emphasis on election administration problems; voter suppression; the efforts of voting rights organizations to mobilize voters and protect their votes; and the actions of extremists who sought to intimidate voters and spread disinformation.As this report shows, it is abundantly clear that our electoral system needs repair. Numerous states have erected new barriers to voting since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted a critical component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many also cling to Jim Crow-era laws, such as felony disenfranchisement, that were specifically designed to suppress the Black vote—or they refuse to enact commonsense changes that would make voting easier and accessible to all citizens. At the same time, some states maintain archaic administrative systems that are woefully inadequate to meet the needs of voters today and ensure fair elections.This report provides a blueprint for reforming the electoral system. The Biden administration and Congress must act quickly to shore up the stability of the electoral process and put our democracy on a firmer footing. Passage of federal laws, including those that strengthen the Voting Rights Act, are necessary steps forward on the path to reform—toward ensuring that all Americans have easy and equal access to the ballot box.

Police and Data Collection: Why Louisiana Needs Reform

June 17, 2020

If Louisiana were a country, it would have the second-highest incarceration rate in the world, behind only Oklahoma. In 2017, the state Legislature enacted long-overdue sentencing reforms to reduce the number of people in prison. Though laudable and necessary, the 2017 legislation is expected to reduce Louisiana's prison population by at most 10percent. It is therefore only the first of many reforms that are needed to shrink Louisiana's bloated prisons.Sentencing occurs at the end of the criminal justice process, after the accused individual has been apprehended and adjudicated. Policing occurs at the beginning of the process. An officer's decision of whom to stop, cite, and arrestis the gateway to the rest of the system.Yet Louisianans know shockingly little about police activities in the state – even when compared to other parts of the criminal justice system. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, for example, publishes quarterly updates on all prisoners placed under its jurisdiction, including their sex, race, convictions, and information about their physical and mental health.Without better data, Louisiana will not be able to evaluate whether or how its law enforcement officers contribute to the state's astronomical incarceration rate and what reforms should be prioritized. Police will not be able to improve their performance or refute criticisms that their practices unfairly target certain groups or that misconduct persists across an entire department. And communities will remain in the dark about how public servants who are licensed to use force carry out their duties.

The Data Gap: School Policing In Louisiana

May 15, 2019

While school-based law enforcement duties vary across school districts, the primary responsibility of officers on campuses is law enforcement. SROs (School Resource Officers), however, have also been increasingly called upon to respond to school disciplinary incidents, resulting in harsher consequences for minor misbehaviors by students.Schools are required to collect and report data on key education and civil rights issues – including school policing data such as the number of students referred to law enforcement, the number of students arrested at school-related activities, and the number of sworn law enforcement officers (including SROs) in their district – to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which is charged with enforcing certain federal anti-discrimination laws in schools.What's more, school districts and state departments of education are required to publish data on school policing under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Though Louisiana has school data collection laws, these laws have not caught up to federal requirements for the collection and publication of certain student data, including school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement and the presence of SROs in Louisiana's schools.Through research and public records requests, the SPLC found that local school districts are not accurately and consistently collecting data on their school policing programs, and the data that was collected and reported had discrepancies compared to data reported to the OCR and data collected by law enforcement agencies. This suggests that educators, families, and policymakers lack accurate, basic information about school policing in the state. The Louisiana Legislature should require schools, school districts, and the Louisiana Department of Education to accurately collect and publicly report data on school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement as already required by federal law.

Racial Profiling in Louisiana: Unconstitutional and Counterproductive

September 13, 2018

Racial profiling – the unconstitutional practice of law enforcement targeting individuals due to the color of their skin – remains an egregious and common form of discrimination and continues to taint the legitimacy of policing in theUnited States. It is both pervasive and hard to prove. Stopping an individual merely for "driving while black" violates the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions, but few cases have been brought in state or federal courts in Louisiana to challenge racially discriminatory policing. Racial profiling is also problematic from a public safety perspective because it undercuts effective police work by damaging trust in law enforcement.While the much-needed sentencing reforms Louisiana began implementing in 2017 are projected to reduce the state's prison population by 10% over the next 10 years, resulting in savings of $262 million,22 none of the reforms focus onthe disproportionate policing of Louisianans of color. Eliminating racial profiling must be a priority if Louisiana wants to shed its status as one of the world's most prolific incarcerators. To address these harms, Louisiana law enforcement agencies must adopt and enforce effective policies against racial profiling and take other steps to ensure constitutional policing. For their parts, the Legislature and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice should institute a host of reforms to curb this unconstitutional and counterproductive practice.

Teaching Hard History: American Slavery

January 31, 2018

Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and – as a result – students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: Forfeiting Your Rights

January 16, 2018

The study examined 1,110 cases in 14 counties, representing 70% of the 1,591 civil asset forfeiture cases filed in Alabama in 2015. It found:- Courts awarded $2.2 million to law enforcement agencies in 827 disposed cases.- In a quarter of the cases filed, criminal charges were not brought against the person whose property was seized, resulting in the forfeiture of more than $670,000.- The state won 84% of disposed cases against property owners not charged with crime.- In 55% percent of cases where criminal charges were filed, the charges were related to marijuana. In 18% of cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia.- In 64% of cases where criminal charges were filed, the defendant was black (African Americans comprise 27 percent of state's population).- In half of the cases, the amount of cash was $1,372 or less.

Civil asset forfeiture: Unfair, undemocratic, and un-American

October 1, 2017

Since the advent of the War on Drugs, law enforcement agencies have used civil asset forfeiture laws to strip Americans of billions of dollars in cash, cars, real estate, and other assets. Under these state and federal laws, officers are legally empowered to seize property they believe is connected to criminal activity -- even if the owner is never charged with a crime. In most states, the agencies are entitled to keep the property or, more typically, the proceeds from its sale.

The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation's Schools

November 28, 2016

In the first days after the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project administered an online survey to K-12 educators from across the country. Over 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators and others who work in schools have responded. The survey data indicate that the results of the election are having a profoundly negative impact on schools and students. Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

Shadow Prisons: Immigrant Detention in the South

November 1, 2016

Just days after winning election, President-elect Donald Trump announced that he intends to round up and deport up to 3 million immigrants.Such a plan, if carried out immediately, would require a massive – and costly – expansion of America's prison and detention infrastructure at a time when politicians and policymakers across the ideological spectrum are working to reduce the nation's prison population, the world's largest.And it would likely be a major boost to the fortunes of private prison companies that profit from incarceration – even though most studies show that privately operated prisons are generally more dangerous, less effective and no less expensive than government-run facilities.Recently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decided to add 10,000 beds to its immigrant detention system, increasing the capacity to 45,000 immigrants per day. But, as a result of Trump's proposed deportation plan, the DHS could need many thousands more. Unsurprisingly, private prison stocks have soared since Trump's election.An expansion of the immigrant detention system threatens to greatly exacerbate the mass incarceration crisis in America. And it would violate our nation's basic values and cement our reputation as a country intolerant of immigrants.The findings of this study demonstrate that the immigrant detention system is already rife with civil rights violations and poor conditions that call into question the DHS's commitment to the due process rights and safety of detainees. Many of these detainees have lived here for years; others recently fled violence in their home countries to seek refuge in the United States.This report is the result of a seven-month investigation of six detention centers in the South, a region where tens of thousands of people are locked up for months, sometimes even years, as they await hearings or deportation.The South is a leader in immigration detention, holding one out of every six detainees in the United States. A closer look makes it clear why it holds this distinction.Detained immigrants in the South are frequently denied the opportunity of a bond hearing that would free them until their cases are adjudicated.The region's immigration courts, which are often inaccessible to the public, are hostile to immigrants not fortunate enough to have an attorney. And so they wait behind bars in remote Southern facilities virtually indistinguishable from prisons. Many of the facilities are former jails or prisons that were shut down after civil rights investigations and lawsuits revealed poor conditions and abuse.Now, it's the detainees who face abusive and dangerous conditions at these facilities, which fail to meet basic legal and regulatory standards. And it's the detainees who often find there is little hope for release as their due process rights are denied.The investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center focuses on detention centers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. Three are operated by private companies and three by county sheriffs. All are paid by the DHS on a per diem basis.The report is based on tours of each facility and more than 300 in-person interviews with detainees. They represent more than 5 percent of the average daily population of the detention centers studied. From facility to facility, their stories are remarkably similar accounts of abuse, neglect and rights denied – symptoms of an immigrant detention system where the failures of the nation's immigration system intersect with the failures of its prison system.

Agenda 21: The UN, Sustainability, and Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory

April 14, 2014

At the conclusion of the June 3-14, 1992, United Nations Conference on Environment & Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, President George H.W. Bush and the leaders of 177 other nations signed a document known as Agenda 21. At the time, it was seen as a perfectly sensible planning paper, a nonbinding statement of intent aimed at dealing with sustainability on an increasingly crowded planet.But in the 22 years since that day, at the hands of groups like the John Birch Society, Agenda 21 has been transformed in much of the American public mind into a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government, a nefarious effort to crush freedom in the name of environmentalism. And it isn't only extremists pushing this conspiracy theory -- in January 2012, the Republican National Committee bought into the propaganda, denouncing Agenda 21 in a resolution as a "destructive and insidious scheme" that is meant to impose a "socialist/communist redistribution of wealth."The demonization of Agenda 21 began among extremist groups like the John Birch Society, the same outfit that was effectively ejected from the conservative movement after accusing President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a communist agent. The Birch Society and an array of other radical-right groups see Agenda 21 and virtually all other global efforts as part of a nefarious plan on the part of global elites to form a socialistic one-world government, or "New World Order."To listen to such groups, Agenda 21 will lead to a "new Dark Ages of pain and misery yet unknown to mankind." It is "a comprehensive plan of utopian environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control," the "most dangerous threat to America's sovereignty" yet. It will "make our nation a vassal" of the UN, result in "the destruction of our lives," force rural areas' "population [to be] decimated," and lead to having "90% of the population murdered." The end, these critics all agree, will be the imposition of "a collectivist world government."Agenda 21 is not a treaty. It has no force of law, no enforcement mechanisms, no penalties, and no significant funding. It is not even a top-down recommendation, seeking instead to encourage communities around the world to come up with their own solutions to overpopulation, pollution, poverty and resource depletion. It is a feel-good guide that cannot force anyone, anywhere, to do anything at all.Yet Alabama has passed a law meant to outlaw any effects of the plan. The legislatures of Kansas, New Hampshire and Tennessee all passed state resolutions condemning it. Similar needless laws have been approved by one chamber of the legislatures in Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma. And political fights over it have broken out in at least half a dozen other states and countless local communities.The fears generated in such places are ridiculous to the point of utter absurdity, but they have had an important real-world impact. In communities like Carroll County, Md., politicians have been voted out of office for supporting local plans. In Baldwin County, Ala., all nine members of the Planning and Zoning Commission quit in disgust after the County Commission killed their plan "on a pretext so devoid of relevance and merit as, in our opinion, to elicit only ridicule," as they wrote. Prominent politicians like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have contributed to such outcomes as they denounce the plan that Cruz has claimed would "abolish" golf courses and paved roads.Virtually none of the outlandish claims about Agenda 21 are true. Yet, as with all such baseless propaganda, the hysteria over it has had the effect of poisoning any kind of rational discussion of the very real challenges we face -- challenges that are essential to tackle head-on in an increasingly complex and stressed world.It's time to finally call out the conspiracy theorists. The politicians who spread falsehoods about Agenda 21 and its effects need to be shamed by other politicians, by editorial boards and other commentators, and by the citizenry at large. The business community and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, which know better, should speak out publicly about the real purposes and usefulness of planning and sustainability. The media needs to stop reporting on Agenda 21 as if it were a bona fide controversy and plainly state the facts about the plan. And communities around the country, some of which have abandoned work on sustainability plans because of the heat, need to be encouraged to return to or start to develop such plans in tandem with responsible groups like the American Planning Association.

Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States

March 4, 2014

Three years ago, prompted by reports showing that American students knew little about the modern civilrights movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an investigation into what -- in the form of standards -- states expected teachers to teach and students tolearn. We found that most states demanded little instruction in this area.In casting the movement as a regional matter, or a topic significant to African-American students only, the states failed to recognize the profound national significance of the movement. Their standards and frameworks sent the message that the movement could safely be ignored.Three years later, we see some improvement in the message that states send to their teachers and students.In some cases, states have modified and strengthened their standards. Most of the improvement, however, was captured because we widened our lens to look beyond what states required, to include resources and materialsthey offered teachers.This 2014 report expands and improves upon our previous report in three ways. First, we invited states to self-report on their programs, processes and progress in teaching the movement. Second, the report includes a comprehensive review of the resources that states provide to teachers. These resources include curricula, lesson plans and original historical documents. Third, the ratings resulted from a more nuanced evaluation of both the state standards and resources.

Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers

February 1, 2014

They come to experience all America has to offer. They hope to pay their way by working a summer job as they experience a new culture and learn English. They work in our hotels, restaurants, fast-food chains and amusement parks. They work for companies with names synonymous with the United States: McDonald's, Disney, Hilton and more. They're J-1 guest workers. Congress created the program more than 50 years ago "to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange." Foreign youths pay American job placement agencies designated by the Department of State -- called "sponsors" -- to be placed with U.S. employers in jobs that offer cultural exchange opportunities and, for trainees and interns, professional job training.This report is based on hundreds of interviews with J-1 Summer Work Travel participants and interns and trainees working across the South, primarily in the hospitality industry. These interviews revealed that regardless of the worker's country of origin or whether they participated in the Summer Work Travel Program or the Trainee and Intern Program, the experience is the same. The J-1 program must return to its original mission of cultural exchange. It also must have mechanisms in place to protect young U.S. workers in the job market. Recommendations for reform are offered at the end of this report.