Free From Jail, Imprisoned by Debt

This opinion piece by Libero Della Piana was written for OtherWords and appeared in Truthout.

At 36, Marcus White has spent half of his life in prison. Today he’s no longer behind bars, but now he’s imprisoned by something else: debt.

When White was sentenced, he was saddled with $5,800 in criminal fines and fees. By the time he was released, he was stunned to learn that with interest, his debt had grown to $15,000 — and continues to grow even now.

That debt isn’t just a drag on White’s finances. It’s a drag on his right to vote.

White’s not alone. More than 50 years after the 24th Amendment made poll taxes unconstitutional in the United States, formerly incarcerated people in at least 30 states are still barred from voting because they’re unable to fully pay their court-related fines and fees.

“I have completely changed my life and have been given a fresh start,” White said recently at a conference in Washington D.C. “Voting wasn’t important to me before, but now I want to be a productive citizen in every way… I want a voice in the process.”

“I am accountable for everything I have done,” he said. “But the interest rate on my fines is crazy.”

New research by my organization, the Alliance for a Just Society, shows that millions of people — including an estimated 1.5 million African Americans — are blocked from voting because they can’t afford their criminal debt.

That debt starts at sentencing and can grow at interest rates of 12 percent or more while inmates serve their sentences. It continues to grow after they’re released and face the numerous barriers to finding work and housing.

Some states explicitly require that all court-imposed fees are paid before voting rights are restored. Others are more indirect, requiring the completion of probation or parole — with the payment of fees and fines a condition of completing parole. The laws vary, but the effects are the same.

On the other hand, former offenders with wealthier family or friends, or a savings account, are able to quickly regain their voting rights. The result is a two-tiered system that restores voting rights to an affluent elite and leaves the rest — the majority, in fact — without a vote.

The reality of racism in the United States and the criminalization of poverty means that black people and other people of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and locked up for longer than whites. Blacks are also less likely to regain their right to vote once they’re released.

That racial disparity bears a grim resemblance to the poll taxes imposed throughout the South after the Civil War, which were intended to keep newly freed black people from exercising their civil rights.

The problem has worsened since 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states — including several in the old Confederacy — have since rushed to impose restrictive voter ID laws and other impediments to voting. But debt as a barrier to voting remains a little-known reality.

The clearest solution is to automatically restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, and to register everyone immediately after they complete their sentence. Alternately, lawmakers could repeal all criminal disenfranchisement. Short of that, states should simply remove the payment of court debts as a condition for voting.

Many of us take voting for granted, especially in a presidential election year.

Voting means having a say in the policies that affect your life and community. It’s an opportunity to elect those who will represent your values. Voting is actively participating in a better future.

Voting is hope. And the ability to pay should never be a requirement for that.

Libero Della Piana, leads racial justice and criminalization initiatives for the Alliance for a Just Society, where he is the digital director.
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Hate Has No Home Here / Hate Has No Business Here


The Alliance for a Just Society joins with Main Street Alliance and businesses all around the country who are standing up to racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric from political candidates and others in recent weeks. We reject collective punishment for individual acts and join other in saying “Hate has no business here” and “Hate has no home here.”

If you are a business owner, we encourage you to download the store sign letting people know All Are Welcome.

You can also Download the #HateHasNoHomeHere House Sign here to post in your home, office or dorm:

8×10 Black & White poster

8×10 Color poster

11×17 Black & White poster

11×17 Color poster





Racism on Campus is Nothing New. A Sustained Anti-Racist Campus Movement Would Be.

Student protests at Brown University in 1968.

As a first-year student at Brown University I was detained for trespassing by campus security.

In my own dorm.  In sock feet.

You see, I left my dorm room to go to the bathroom and didn’t bring my college ID along. I guess I should have known better. As a black student it was always an unstated expectation that I justify my presence on campus. Black students were a small minority on campus. And we were often seen as interlopers even after admission.

I was reminded of this incident this week as protests escalated at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) over a string a racist incidents there culminating in the ouster of the state university System President Tim Wolfe. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, many being veterans of the Ferguson struggle nearby, using a wide range of tried-and-true and cutting edge tactics, Mizzou students won one of their main demands, something many observers had said was impossible.

This powerful example of the power of protest and student organizing was met with rightwing media ridicule, attack by the Missouri Lt. Governor and even death threats against students. Just a day after the jubilation at the resignation of the University President, the campus was a ghost town as Mizzou students stayed away from class amid the tense climate.

Missouri students were not alone. Students at Yale University were in motion as well. Outrage over racism there was sparked by an administrator’s email communication stating that cautioning against racist Halloween costumes was a violation of free speech. Then grew over reports of a “white girls only” fraternity party the same weekend. Students at Yale were fired up by the time Mizzou made national news.

The fight was joined Thursday when the already planned Million Student March — demanding the elimination of all student debt, free college education for all, and $15 minimum wage for campus workers — stood in solidarity with Mizzou students.

What is new today is not racism on campuses both elite and public. It’s not student protest around the issues affecting their lives. What is new is the national scope of the protest and the breadth of the support, from professors to trade unions, to community supporters, to civil rights organizations. It brings together traditional and innovative student organizations, student governments and individuals.

Some 115 campuses took part in the protests, which were organized by United States Student Association, the Student Labor Action Project, and others. More than 1,000 students gathered at the University of California at Berkeley Thursday. It’s the kind of student action not seen in a generation.

To cap off the week, in Southern California, Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students Mary Spellman resigned Thursday amid protests there over racism on campus.

Ultimately the protests at Mizzou and elsewhere are not so much about this administrator or that as they are about demanding that institutions of higher learning create a space for students of color. It’s the same issue we were struggling with years ago.

Some commentators seem to think students protest because they are young and naive and motivated by intellectual concerns (or even under the influence of radical professors). But students today — as always — are largely motivated to action by the pressing issues impacting their lives and educations. It’s not academic.

Certainly the students in the struggles today have made mistakes — and they will certainly make more — but if sustained and nurtured, this week could signal a new multi-racial campus movement, with racial justice at its core, that could spark national change in the country in a wide range of issues. And maybe inspire others to get in motion as well.

When I was detained as a student it was not an isolated incident. Police and security harassment of black male students in particular was commonplace and some of us took to wearing our IDs around our necks as a visible sign of our alienness and defiance on a majority white campus.

It was no accident then that the student of color dropout rate at Brown was higher than for whites. We often lacked needed support and student services. Many of us were on financial aid and under constant economic pressures of working full-time while trying to get an education. A recent report says students of color at Brown today are still facing similar challenges.

So we had meetings, wrote up demands, protested and marched. We even achieved some small victories. We were also aware that our very presence at Brown was due to the successful protests of those that preceded us. It was the protests of a small group of black students in the 1960s that forced Brown to adopt goals for diversity in admissions that opened the door to our very presence.

That’s the nature of the struggle for progressive social change. Each struggle builds on those of the past. If we are successful, learning the lessons along the way to raise the struggle to a higher level.

#BlackLivesMatter. #UnitedWeFight.

Saturday, a group of ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ activists protested at a Seattle public event to celebrate decades of Social Security and Medicare. Our affiliate organization, Washington Community Action Network! was a cosponsor of the event. The event featured U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Sen. Sanders was unable to speak to the crowd because of the protest.

The issues of Social Security, Medicare and racist police violence are issues that are very important to us, our organizations and our grassroots members. It should be noted that other speakers earlier in the event spoke about the urgency and importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement on the eve of the one year anniversary of the killing of ‪#‎MikeBrown‬ in‪#‎Ferguson‬, MO.

We understand why some rally participants were frustrated not to hear Sen. Sanders as planned, but we are very disturbed that some in the crowd demanded that protestors be arrested and heckled during the short moment of silence for Mike Brown.

As long as the killing of black people remains a crisis in this country activists will demand that #BlackLivesMatter be front and center on the national agenda. And it should be. But we also believe that there are other important and pressing issues facing working people and communities of color. We think there is room for conversations on all these issues and more in Congress, along the Presidential campaign trail, in statehouses and in the public debate.

The candidates will all have to improve their response to the crisis of police violence and mass incarceration, and all of us will have to learn to work together, broaden our understanding of issues — even those that don’t directly effect us — and deepen our sense of solidarity. Sometimes that means making room for issues that aren’t our personal priority. Sometimes that means being uncomfortable.

That’s why it is so appropriate that organizers in Ferguson this weekend are using the slogan ‪#‎UnitedWeFight‬. It will take a united fight to change police practices in this country, as well as to expand Medicaid, defend Social Security and Medicare and win a better world for all.

AJS Statement on Charleston, S.C. Shootings

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The Alliance for a Just Society joins the world in mourning the brutal deaths of nine people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, SC this week. We have in our thoughts and prayers the families and lives of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Daniel L. Simmons, Ethel Lee Lance, Myra Thompson, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. We may not have known them, but we name them, and vow never to forget the personal victims of racist violence and their stories.

We are appalled by the racist violence and terror. We are angry that more than 50 years since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. last spoke in that same church that we are still unable to face racism in our country.

Racism dehumanizes and abuses people of color and reinforces vast inequality, while protecting those with power and privilege. Violence, terror and fear are essential pillars of racism – whether it’s the official violence at the hands of the police and military; vigilante violence by the mob, or the action of a “lone gunman.”

But there is no lone gunman. Anyone who has a hand in allowing racism to thrive in any corner of our society, in our homes, our living rooms or taught to our children, has to acknowledge that it must end now. We don’t need any more wake up calls. We have awoken.

The lost lives of the nine men and women, moms, dads, sisters, uncles, grandparents, brothers, children, friends, teachers, and all that they were and meant, cannot simply be mourned… they must be a catalyst for change – and we must be that change.

Today is the 150th Anniversary of Juneteenth Day, the first celebration of the end of slavery. Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that Texas can forbid people from putting the Confederate Flag on their state license plates, and yet, many Southern states still fly confederate flags. Our country still struggles to acknowledge that #BlackLivesMatter.

We believe that “no one is free until we are all free.” We’re still not free.

Banning Racial Profiling is Long Overdue

It didn’t get much media attention, but the U.S. Congress banned the use of federal funds for racial profiling last week by voice vote. This adds to the existing federal rules which ban federal law enforcement agencies and joint task forces from racial profiling (excluding airport security. We have our eye on you TSA!).

Of course this law comes in the midst of unprecedented public awareness of police misconduct and violence and a shifting debate about mass incarceration and racial disparities in policing. There are even state bills in a number of local legislatures that are on their way to banning racial profiling locally.

“When law enforcement profiles a person based on skin tone or appearance, they diminish that individual’s humanity,” said Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It sews the seeds of distrust in the victim and their community, and sends a message that those enlisted to serve and protect will, in fact, do neither.

“Those sentiments could not be further from the truth for countless men and women who risk their lives as first responders, which makes the need to ban profiling all the more urgent.”

To most of us it seems obvious. Making people suspects simply because of their skin color is not just offensive and discriminatory, it is ineffective policing. Banning these explicitly racist policies is long overdue and a welcome change.

But forbidding racial profiling as a policy is not enough. We have to also track and eradicate de facto discrimination and directly address disparate impacts of policing whether they are intended or explicit or not.

And that is easier said than done especially because we don’t track the data well enough or sometimes we don’t track it at all.

This week, the UK Guardian launched a new website to use “crowdsourcing” to track police-involved shooting and killings since the U.S. Department of Justice is apparently incapable of doing so. There are new measures being introduced that would mandate police reporting in such cases.

Just as important is robust reporting on the race and national original of the victims of police violence, arrest and imprisonment in order to expose the racial dimension of policing more than we know today.

One thing’s for sure, it is nearly impossible to address structural racism without a commitment to first “see” its impact. We should all welcome the banning of explicit racial profiling, but a key step toward real robust police accountability and reform is forcing police to report on their own activities and track the data by race.


(PHOTO: longislandwins CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


20 Years Later, Can We Finally End Excessive Policing?

The movement against police violence — a movement perhaps best summed up by the slogan Black Lives Matter — is at a turning point.

Of course, police abuse of power is as old as policing itself. Racist and disproportionate police misconduct, and violence targeted at communities of color, is just as lasting. But it seems in recent months that something is happening that points to a major opportunity for real and lasting reform.

One clue to this shift happened in the past few weeks. Amid the physical and emotional rebuilding of Baltimore following the in-custody killing of Freddie Gray and the public protest and revolt that followed, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave her first policy speech of the campaign season. It was a call for comprehensive police reform.

Clinton didn’t just call for small reforms, but questioned the whole logic of current police practices – calling on Congress to, “end the era of mass incarceration.” Her remarks are also surprising because they are in stark contrast to the policies enacted by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, just two decades earlier.

Then-President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made three-strikes a federal law, expanded the number of violations subject to capital punishment, used block grant funding and a number of other sweeping measures that advanced criminalization of everyday life.

At the time, there were about 1 million people in the prison in the U.S. Now there is 2.3 million. The 1994 Crime Bill federalized “three-strikes” laws, massively expanded the number of death-penalty crimes, created whole new categories of crime for immigrants and suspected gang members, and put an additional 100,000 police on the street around the country. Mass incarceration became the law of the land.

While policing certainly wasn’t great for black communities before 1994, since then extreme and excessive policing has been encouraged through incentives, and Congress and the President changed policing as we knew it. The lost lives from Ferguson to Baltimore are only a small hint of the devastating results.

But Hillary Clinton is not the only mainstream figure to recently come out against current policing practices. A number of law enforcement officials have spoken publicly of late about persistent racial problems in police departments nationwide.

Significantly, last year just before announcing his resignation, former Attorney General Eric Holder (the country’s top cop mind you) — declared that, “for far too long – under well-intentioned policies designed to be ‘tough’ on criminals – our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities – particularly communities of color.”

Now even Bill Clinton is getting in on the act, saying his wife and presidential candidate should repeal the very laws he championed, saying, “We have too many people in jail.” The admission may be a little late, but it’s a welcome change. More importantly it marks an opportunity for organizers, activists, and all communities affected by these disastrously failed policies, to redefine safety and security and change policing as we have come to know it.

But it’s an opportunity that won’t last forever. The question is whether the movements are prepared to take advantage of the moment. It’s up to us.

Ferguson Mandate: Time to Change Police Policies and Practices

The Ferguson grand jury has announced its decision in the killing of Michael Brown.

The Alliance for a Just Society joins with millions of people who are outraged and incredulous that no indictment was made of officer Darren Wilson for killing the unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.

An indictment is not a verdict, it is simply the acknowledgement that a life was wrongly taken and that a trial is necessary to review the evidence and to determine whether the officer is guilty of murder, manslaughter, or is innocent.

No indictment means no pursuit of the truth, and little chance of justice.

“The tragedy that happened in Ferguson is a mandate to change the policy and practice of policing around the country,” said LeeAnn Hall, executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society.  “Let’s end a system that allows police to take the lives of young black men, any  person of color, or anyone’s child, without facing the consequences.”

There have been far too many distortions, reversals and changed stories from the Ferguson Police Department about the incident. The public still doesn’t know everything that happened that day, nor do we know Darren Wilson’s version of events.

We are also disturbed by the preparation for violent conflict and confrontation by the local police in Ferguson and the State of Missouri.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a State of Emergency last week in advance of the Grand Jury decision and ahead of predicted “violent protest.” The fact is that protests in Ferguson, the surrounding area, and around the country have been largely peaceful. The governor’s decision and stockpiling of riot gear and materials sets a dangerous tone for police.

Tension rose in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in large part due to police violence and excessive response towards protesters. Journalists, local clergy, bystanders and protesters were locked up, tear-gassed, beaten, harassed and arrested over the past three months.

In this moment of miscarried justice we must all take action.

  • We call on the police and other authorities to respond responsibly and peacefully to the legal and rightful protest of the Grand Jury decision. We have a right to march, protest and to call attention to the prevalence of police violence and brutality in communities of color in this country.
  • We call for demilitarizing the police and a stop to federal programs that provide subsidized or free military equipment to local authorities.

We cannot let Michael Brown’s death be in vain.