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The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Wednesday applauded the dismissal of a case in the Eastern District Court of Arkansas that highlighted the systemic problems inherent in the use of a for-profit company to manage peoples' lives through the criminal justice system.
The case of Justice Network v. Craighead County, et al, marked an unusual turn in which a private probation company sued two Craighead County judges, Tommy Fowler and David Boling, who ended the use of the company's services in Craighead County.
"This is an important victory for poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, who face a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration at the hands of predatory for-profit companies," said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee. "The Justice Network put profit before people and, as a result, ran its business with utter disregard for the well-being or constitutional rights of the communities most impacted by its predatory and abusive business practices. The dismissal of this lawsuit also vindicates the efforts of reform-minded judges who are working to ensure equal justice and due process in their courtrooms, and to consequently protect the civil rights of minorities and indigent defendants."
From 1997 until February 2017, the Justice Network served as the sole provider of misdemeanor probation supervision in Craighead County. The company collected upwards of $500,000 a year off the backs of largely poor and disproportionately minority Arkansans in Craighead County. The company's practice of seeking warrants for the arrest of individuals on probation for failure to pay and/or attend a class or assignment scheduled by the private company had a harmful effect, pushing thousands of people in Craighead into cycles of debt, fear, poverty, and incarceration.
In August, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Venable LLP filed an amicus curiae, "friend of the court," brief stating that Judges Fowler and Boling were justified in ending the use of the company's services in the county's probation system on both law and policy grounds.
"This is a significant decision for poor people facing the threat of incarceration in modern day debtors' prisons," said Rachael O'Bryan of Venable LLP. "As the court found, the law protects judges who abandon unlawful probation practices and choose instead to adhere to the Constitution's command to account for an individual's financial wherewithal before locking up that individual for failure to pay a fine. We hope yesterday's ruling encourages other state judges presiding over similarly unconstitutional probation regimes to make the same choice that Judges Fowler and Boling did."
The money-making scheme pursued by the Justice Network undermined faith in the criminal justice system and caused widespread harm by systematically perpetuating unfair and unequal treatment of poor Arkansans. On just one day in August 2016, more than 80 percent of individuals who appeared before Judge Boling in court were jailed solely on warrants issued for failure to pay--not because of any criminal wrongdoing. The spiraling debt and hopelessness of thousands of County residents, described by some as "a maze with no exit," more than justifies the Judges' decisions to end their courts' relationship with the company and institute an "Amnesty Program" to forgive fees owed by the probationers to the company.
The injustices perpetuated against poor and minority communities through the collection of fines and fees in the criminal justice system was also the subject of a report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in September. The report found that there is a "financial incentive for private probation companies to keep debtors in the system" because "'every person who successfully [pays his or her debts] is a lost source of revenue.'" The "incentives for these third parties to profit are often in conflict with the goals of the justice system."
The Lawyers' Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to enlist the private bar's leadership and resources in combating racial discrimination and the resulting inequality of opportunity - work that continues to be vital today.(202) 662-8600
"From his hostility toward racial equity and LGBTQ+ rights, to book bans, to one of the most draconian abortion bans on record, he poses an immense threat to our freedoms and our country's most vulnerable communities," said one critic.
"Of all the extremists gunning for the GOP nomination, Ron DeSantis might be the worst."
That's what NARAL Pro-Choice America president Mini Timmaraju said in a statement Wednesday as Florida's Republican governor formally launched his long-anticipated campaign for the party's 2024 presidential nomination.
"From his hostility toward racial equity and LGBTQ+ rights, to book bans, to one of the most draconian abortion bans on record, he poses an immense threat to our freedoms and our country's most vulnerable communities," Timmaraju warned. "NARAL and our 4 million members will keep fighting side-by-side with those that DeSantis has targeted, and we are ready to mobilize to ensure that his extremism gets nowhere near the White House."
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Women's March also slammed "fascist, anti-choice" DeSantis, and listed some of the policies he has fought for as governor, including a six-week abortion ban and the "Don't Say Gay" law. The Florida Republican has also recently engaged in attacks on academic freedom, the rights of immigrants and transgender people, and democracy.
\u201cRon DeSantis is going to position himself as some anti-business populist but he's actually just an off-putting errand boy for the world's wealthiest people. \n\nThis should be the story about his campaign. He's like a homophobic Cousin Greg without the charm.\u201d— Jordan Zakarin (@Jordan Zakarin) 1684971187
Jenny Lawson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, similarly stressed Wednesday that "Ron DeSantis' governorship has been an unmitigated disaster for Floridians, and his candidacy is a grave threat to every American's reproductive freedom."
"He's shown time and time again that he will put himself and his political ambitions over anything and everyone—including the health and lives of Floridians," Lawson continued. "While Floridians demand affordable healthcare and safer communities, DeSantis has pushed policies that endanger Florida's future."
"Voters in Florida don't support his anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, and DeSantis will soon learn that the rest of the country doesn't, either," she added. "Everyone will see him for the dangerous, out-of-touch, overzealous politician he is. Planned Parenthood Votes will make sure of it."
\u201cA world of censorship, restricted access to life-saving care and suppression of our community is not a world we want to live in.\n\nWe cannot allow Ron DeSantis to become president and undo the progress we\u2019ve made.\u201d— Human Rights Campaign (@Human Rights Campaign) 1684954507
DeSantis on Wednesday filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission and then officially announced his candidacy during a Twitter "Spaces" event—hosted by the social media giant's billionaire owner, Elon Musk—that, as Politicoput it, was "marred by horrendous tech failures."
Nora Benavidez, Free Press Action's senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights, said that "it's no surprise that the Spaces suffered a tech meltdown during tonight's big announcement. Musk has cut back on the personnel needed to keep Twitter glitch-free. It's fitting that his reckless management style would bite him just as so many are tuning in."
"Giving airtime to Ron DeSantis is not about free speech on Twitter or making the platform a public square. Elon Musk is instead prioritizing voices like his that promote bigotry and hate," Benavidez added. "This latest Musk stunt merely showcases a man who has misused his power in Florida to attack every basic right Floridians have. From DeSantis' attacks on voting rights, protest rights, and academic freedoms to denying basic protections for the LGBTQIA+ community, his presidential announcement this evening shows us all what Twitter has become: a megaphone for right-wing reactionary views."
As Politico reported:
President Joe Biden was quick to chime in, tweeting: "This link works," followed by a link to the president's campaign donation site.Polling results released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University show that despite his various legal issues, Trump is the top choice for 56% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, followed by DeSantis with 25%. Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got just 3% while ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) all tied at 2%; the other eight declared or potential candidates each received less than that.
A spokesperson for former President Donald Trump responded: "Glitchy. Tech issues. Uncomfortable silences. A complete failure to launch. And that's just the candidate!"
As Common Dreamsreported earlier Wednesday, DeSantis entered the 2024 race as he faced scrutiny from campaign finance watchdogs.
This article has been updated with comment from Free Press Action.
"Should this become law, it will cause irreparable damage to the student loan system and undermine Americans’ trust in their government," warned the head of the Student Borrower Protection Center.
Advocates of student debt relief on Wednesday blasted Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a resolution that critics said showcases "their contempt for workers and families" who are burdened by loans taken out to access higher education.
H.J. Res. 45 is a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, which U.S. lawmakers can use to overturn federal regulations. The measure passed the House in a 218-203 vote mostly along party lines; Democratic Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.) were the only members of their party to join Republicans in supporting it.
The resolution is unlikely to go anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and even if it did, the White House has already made clear that President Joe Biden would veto it. The GOP measure—a clear message to voters ahead of the 2024 elections—would block Biden's pending student debt cancellation plan and reverse already-delivered relief.
\u201cThis harmful and regressive action, which passed on a slim margin, not only undermines the significant progress made in addressing the #studentdebtcrisis but also disregards the ongoing struggles of families enduring the economic aftermath caused by the #COVID19 pandemic.\u201d— Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC) (@Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC)) 1684966787
As Common Dreamsreported Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC) released a report detailing the "ruinous impact" the resolution would have on millions of borrowers.
"The record is clear: The damage caused by this cruel and reckless legislation will hurt working people, including millions of its right-wing supporters' own constituents," SBPC executive director Mike Pierce declared after the vote.
Pierce noted that "right-wing proponents have gone to great lengths to mislead their own colleagues and deny the truth—this effort would push hundreds of thousands of public service workers back into debt and require the government to charge tens of millions [of] borrowers for interest that has already been canceled."
"Should this become law, it will cause irreparable damage to the student loan system and undermine Americans' trust in their government," he warned. "This is exactly what extreme conservative lawmakers want, they are just afraid to say it."
SBPC and 260 other groups also criticized the resolution's supporters in a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, charging that "policymakers now seeking to reverse such critical relief through the CRA are ignoring the economic needs of their own constituents and threatening our nation's financial security."
"Congress should be acting to improve the circumstances of the American people," the coalition argued, "not attempting to thwart the president's efforts to ease the financial pressure that so many are feeling."
\u201cHouse Republicans just voted to throw 260K public servants back into debt & force 36 million Americans to immediately pay back months of paused student loans. They would rather give tax breaks to giant corporations than help families crushed by debt. I\u2019ll continue to fight this.\u201d— Elizabeth Warren (@Elizabeth Warren) 1684964518
Another letter signatory, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), called out the GOP-led effort just ahead of the vote Wednesday.
"This is yet another political stunt from some members of Congress to prevent tens of millions of borrowers, including low-wealth individuals, service members, public service workers, women, and people of color from receiving relief ahead of the Supreme Court's decision regarding the fate of student debt cancellation, said Jaylon Herbin, CRL's director of federal campaigns.
Herbin warned that "resuming the payment pause without student loan forgiveness, let alone requiring students to retroactively pay months' worth of student loan payments, will add thousands of dollars into the average borrower's loan balance, lead millions into forbearance and default, and contribute to a widening racial wealth gap.”
"These actions are not only irresponsible but demonstrate a genuine lack of concern for the nation's overall economic health and the financial well-being of millions of U.S. individuals and families," he added.
The House vote came not only as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a pair of right-wing challenges to Biden's debt relief plan, but also as congressional Republicans threaten to blow up the economy by refusing to raise the debt limit unless Democratic lawmakers and the president agree to spending cuts that would harm working people.
"It's time that the steel industry take the growing need and demand for fossil-free steel seriously," said one advocate.
Progressive organizers on Wednesday urged steelmakers to swiftly adopt the clean manufacturing methods needed to achieve a shift from coal-based steel to "green steel."
At the Great Designs in Steel conference held in a Detroit suburb, Public Citizen and Mighty Earth activists used a series of digital ads and mobile billboards to call on industry insiders and automotive executives to accelerate the nascent transition from dirty to clean steel by fully embracing low- to zero-carbon production processes—one of many changes that scientists say are necessary to avert the worst consequences of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis.
"Steel manufacturing remains one of the most energy-intensive and polluting aspects of making a vehicle, but there are solutions to clean it up," Erika Thi Patterson, supply chain campaigns director at Public Citizen, said in a statement. "As companies and governments work to meet net-zero climate commitments, it's time that the steel industry take the growing need and demand for fossil-free steel seriously and embrace the cleaner technologies that exist today."
"Insiders at this conference," Patterson continued, "need to recognize the inevitability of green transportation and move in that direction quickly and forcefully."
"It's time steelmakers ditch the dirty blast furnaces of the past and invest in fossil-free steel today for the health and future of our climate, communities, and steel producers' viability and own financial health."
At the conference venue, mobile billboards denounced steelmaker Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.'s recent announcement that it plans to stick with coal-powered blast furnaces in the near term. Rival company U.S. Steel, by contrast, is ramping up the use of lower-emission electric arc furnaces at its mini-mills.
Billboards with the message, "Cleveland-Cliffs: Ditch the past, embrace the Green Steel future!" circled the venue for the duration of the meeting.
"As a sponsor of the Great Designs in Steel conference, Cleveland-Cliffs must end its commitment to dirty blast furnaces that release significant climate and health-harming pollution," said Matthew Groch, senior director for decarbonization at Mighty Earth. "Instead of embracing the future and investing in low-carbon steel production, Cliffs has doubled down on blast furnaces, announcing plans to reline a blast furnace at its Burns Harbor, Indiana facility, extending the plant's life by an estimated 18 years."
"As the auto industry works to decarbonize its steel supply chain," said Groch, "Cleveland-Cliffs' dirty steelmaking locks the company into high-emission technologies for decades."
As The Times of Northwest Indianareported recently:
Blast furnaces used to be the primary method of steelmaking in the United States. But they have lost much of their business over the last several decades to mini-mills, which are cheaper to operate, often located in southern and rural areas, and usually not unionized, cutting down on steelmakers' labor costs by paying workers lower wages.
Mini-mills now account for an estimated 70% of domestic steel production, according to the Steel Manufacturers Association. As the long-vacant merchant mills at Gary Works attest, mini-mills have long since seized entire segments of the market like rebar for construction.
But integrated steelmaking has persisted, largely because new steel is needed to serve automakers and other industries that demand stronger and higher-quality steel products.
However, according to Public Citizen's newly launched FAQ webpage on the subject, clean manufacturing techniques are capable of delivering the higher-grade steel required by electric vehicle (EV) makers.
"Green primary steel is produced from iron ore without coal or other fossil fuels," the webpage states. "A proven method of ironmaking known as direct reduced iron (DRI) can be powered by green hydrogen to produce fossil-free steel."
"Automotive-grade steel has certain properties, including low levels of residual elements like copper and nickel, which affect mechanical performance," the webpage continues. "These impurities are difficult to remove through simple metallurgical processes, but direct reduced iron (DRI) facilities can produce green automotive-grade steel with even lower levels of residual elements than blast furnace steel."
"Fossil-free steel is possible today," it adds. "Facilities using this technology are currently under construction in Europe. Still, the U.S. has no new facilities in the works [or] plans for new facilities, and current DRI plants are reliant on methane gas."
The webpage laments that "even though steelmaking can be decarbonized by using cleaner, more sustainable technologies, most new (primary) steel is still made using 14th-century blast furnace technology that burns coal, harming our health and climate."
"In the United States, eight remaining integrated steel mills burn massive amounts of coke made from coal in blast furnaces to make iron and steel," according to Public Citizen. "Each steel mill emits roughly as much carbon dioxide as a coal-fired power plant."
"As more and more countries and steel buyers seek to reduce their emissions, blast furnaces could become obsolete in the coming years, leaving the steel industry with stranded assets worth between $345 billion and $518 billion."
The toxic pollution, such as heavy metals and particulate matter, that blast furnaces spew into nearby areas "has been linked to serious harms for people including premature death, and increased rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, cardiac disease, and cancer," the progressive advocacy group notes. "Because steel mills have historically been built in or adjacent to low-income communities and communities of color, these communities have borne the brunt of the health hazards related to steel mill air pollution and water contamination."
"With the introduction of new policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and other public investments in decarbonization across the globe, building new blast furnaces or extending the life of existing ones is a misguided move," the webpage points out. "Market demand for green steel is rising. Steelmakers can gain a competitive edge by investing in green steel today."
Moreover, it warns that "as more and more countries and steel buyers seek to reduce their emissions, blast furnaces could become obsolete in the coming years, leaving the steel industry with stranded assets worth between $345 billion and $518 billion."
Wednesday's action at the Great Designs in Steel conference comes on the heels of the launch of the 'Lead the Charge' campaign, of which Public Citizen and Mighty Earth are members. To help achieve its goal of ensuring that EVs "aren't manufactured in a way that harms people and the planet," the campaign maintains a scorecard that tracks human rights and environmental issues throughout the EV supply chain.
As of March, just two automakers had set goals for the use of fossil-free steel, the campaign found.
"It's time steelmakers ditch the dirty blast furnaces of the past and invest in fossil-free steel today for the health and future of our climate, communities, and steel producers' viability and own financial health," says Public Citizen's new webpage.
To expedite the green steel transition, the group advocates for the following:
As for the lower union density found in the steel industry's mini-mills compared with its few remaining merchant mills, there's no reason why lawmakers couldn't enact policies to turn the shift to green steel into a win-win opportunity to boost unionization.
Notably, the United Auto Workers is currently withholding its endorsement of U.S. President Joe Biden in the early stages of the 2024 race in an attempt to secure concessions that would make the EV transition a just one for labor.