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Sex Discrimination in the Lone Star State

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July 30, 2009

Cross-posted to RH Reality Check.

As a native Texan and a young woman, I cling to the legacy of leaders like Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards. These women fought a tireless battle to end sex discrimination and to leave future generations a world where justice and compassion guide us. Unfortunately, Texas doesn’t always honor their legacy and pay tribute to their struggle.

A case in point: yesterday, the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit involving the unfair and discriminatory incarceration of a pregnant woman who violated her probation.

In 2005, Amber Lovill pled guilty to the crime of felony forgery and received three years probation. In July 2007, during a routine report to her probation officer, Lovill took a required drug test and informed the officer that she was pregnant. After testing positive for drug use, the state moved to revoke her probation and incarcerate her for the rest of her pregnancy. According to the ACLU’s brief, officers repeatedly admitted that if Lovill were not pregnant, less restrictive alternatives would have been the typical response to a positive drug test.

A lower court has already ruled that probation officers treated Lovill differently from others who violated probation, but were not pregnant. The ACLU has asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm this ruling.

The state of Texas clearly discriminated against Lovill because she was pregnant. Lovill’s probation officers have openly testified that this was not the standard course of action in response to a positive drug screen, and that because of Lovill’s pregnancy, they were not willing to “work with” her and felt there were no “other options” besides putting her in jail. It sent her to Nueces County Jail, a facility known to be unsanitary and unsafe for the remainder of her pregnancy. The state sought to incarcerate Ms. Lovill regardless of whether the facility was safe and could meet her medical needs for both prenatal care and substance abuse, and regardless of whether it is legal to treat women differently simply because they are pregnant.

While drug use during pregnancy raises serious concerns, if the state really wanted to help Lovill get the care she needed, it could have placed her in a program that specifically treats pregnant women. In fact, not only did a residential drug treatment program that specializes in treating pregnant women and their families exist, Lovill expressed a strong desire to enter the program. “I was clean for 21 months and I had one relapse. And I know that I can stay clean again. I’d just like the chance because I want to keep my baby with me,” Lovill said. Nevertheless, the state locked her up in Nueces County Jail.

I hope that the Court of Appeals will uphold the lower court’s ruling, and make me proud to be a Texan again.

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