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This Week in Civil Liberties (02/07/2014)

Rekha Arulanantham,
Litigation Fellow,
ACLU National Prison Project
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February 7, 2014

True or false: private probation companies are engaged in a court-sanctioned extortion racket.

In which state did the ACLU file a lawsuit this week challenging the ban on marriage for same-sex couples?

Which legislative body is considering the Smarter Sentencing Act, a big step toward a fairer, more human criminal justice system?

Who did the NSA’s illegal spying put in jail?

True or false: 70% of the public opposes private school vouchers.

Court-Sanctioned Extortion by Private Probation Companies: Modern Debtors’ Prisons

This week, Human Rights Watch released Profiting from Probation, a report that confirms the ACLU’s worst fears about the privatization of probation services: for-profit companies are increasingly working with county and city courts around the country to extort poor people for money, including by illegally jailing them simply because they are too poor to pay court-imposed fines and fees. While poor people suffer and taxpayers foot the bill for hidden costs, private companies make big money—to the tune of an estimated $40 million in revenue in Georgia alone, according to the report.

If You Think Marriage Doesn’t Matter – Think Again

Roy Badger met his partner Garth through mutual friends when they were both students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Roy and Garth have been partners for the last 37 years, but when Garth almost lost his life because of the rash decisions of a less than supportive family member, Roy was reminded how important it is to be Garth’s husband.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The Senate Judiciary Committee took one big step forward toward a fairer and more humane criminal justice system last week by passing the Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced earlier this year by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Unfortunately, the Committee also voted to add three new mandatory minimum sentences for domestic violence, sexual assault and terrorism crimes. The American Civil Liberties Union supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, but we don’t support the new mandatory minimums. The bill now moves to the Senate floor for consideration.

Who Did the NSA’s Illegal Spying Put in Jail?

Last week, the ACLU joined a constitutional challenge to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), the statute that allows the NSA to engage in dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international phone calls and emails. With the Federal Defenders Office, we filed a motion on behalf of Jamshid Muhtorov, the first criminal defendant to receive notice that he had been monitored under this controversial spying law. But Mr. Muhtorov received this notice only after the Department of Justice (DOJ) abandoned its previous policy of concealing FAA surveillance in criminal cases — a policy that violated both the statute itself and defendants’ due process rights.

Bad Ideas and Principles During “School Choice Week”

Last week, there was a lot of emphasis on income inequality, social mobility, and class concerns, but not all of the attention came from President Obama and his State of the Union message. It was also “School Choice Week,” and proponents of taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to pay for private and religious schools seized the opportunity to claim that vouchers will solve these challenging societal issues. However, when “school choice” means vouchers, what it really offers is discrimination and lack of accountability.

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