Supreme Court strikes down Florida law on executing the Intellectually Disabled

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Florida law that defined intellectually disability for death row inmates as a score of 70 or below. For severely disabled prisoners, states now have to consider how the person has lived and functioned throughout his life to determine disability, not just their IQ score. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in his ruling on Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court has recognized that “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”

Before this ruling, a one-point difference in IQ would make the difference between life and death for people on death row in Florida. An IQ score above 70 meant that a person was determined mentally sound—and the state could pursue the death penalty. A score below 69 meant that the person was disabled enough that execution was cruel and unusual punishment.

As background, in the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Court banned the death penalty for people with mental disabilities, reasoning that, because people developmental disabilities often act impulsively and without considering the consequences, it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to put them to death. In that ruling, the court noted that an IQ score below 70 was a common sign (though not solely determinative) of intellectual disability. Ever since then, Florida, Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama had laws that determined intellectual disability based solely on IQ score. Anyone who scored a 70 or higher was determined to not have had an intellectual disability. Five other states — Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington — appear to use a “bright-line cutoff” based on an IQ test. Thanks to yesterday’s opinion, this ‘line’ is no longer relevant—each person needs to be viewed and understood holistically, as a whole, not as a number.

Yesterday’s ruling was a powerful step in the right direction. The ruling challenges us as a nation to consider the negative consequences of applying the sentence of death to any of our citizens. Who are we to say who lives and who dies? Who sets the arbitrary rules, lines, and cutoffs? Is there really a way to look at an entire person, to understand their history, and what brought them to the day they committed the crime? Is there a way to quantify remorse, or the ability to pursue a second chance? We believe there is not—and that because we cannot look at the individual holistically, because we are human, not god-like creatures, we should not be making these decisions.

In the last decade, several states have reversed their use of capital punishment: Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New Mexico abolished it and New York’s death penalty was struck down by a state court in 2004. Following the shocking execution in Oklahoma last month, President Obama has directed the attorney general, Eric Holder, to review the death penalty, We welcome the intensifying debate on this cruel practice and are hopeful that this practice will be one we soon look back on as a country, wondering how we ever believed we were capable of deciding who died and who lived—who was deserving of a second chance.

Support the Fair Sentencing Act SB1010!

Dear Readers,

Today we encourage you to support the Fair Sentencing Act SB 1010! SB 1010 would signal the end of the unfair and unjust differences in penalties for possessing for sale of crack and powder cocaine. The Senate is voting next week – please tell your State Senator to vote YES on SB 1010. Take action today!

As a society, we all bear the costs of disproportionately heavy and skewed sentences. Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug: gram for gram, there is less active drug in crack cocaine than powder cocaine. There is no justifiable reason for the difference in crack and powder cocaine sentencing, and this disparity only serves to enforce racial discrimination, segregation, and the creation of “The New Jim Crow” in our prisons.

According to the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 98% of people entering a California prison for the possession for sale of crack cocaine are people of color. From 2005 to 2010, Blacks accounted for 77.4% of state prison commitments for possession for sale of crack cocaine (but only 6.6% of the state population), Latinos accounted for 18.1%, “Other” for 2.7%, and Whites for 1.8%.

SB 1010 is an opportunity for us all to right this wrong—to stand for equality and justice. We urge you to click here for the ACLU of Northern California’s website and email or call your state Senator—TELL THEM TO VOTE YES ON SB 1010!

Root & Rebound’s First Publication!

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Today, Root & Rebound is proud to share its first publication, Voices From the Field: Major Gaps & Unmet Needs in Reentry & Best Practices for Starting a Reentry Program. This report is based on interviews conducted by Root & Rebound’s founding staff members about the current landscape of reentry. Over 70 practitioners in the field of reentry were interviewed for this project–including attorneys, social workers, formerly incarcerated advocates, educators, and academics–working in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, CA and in New York City.

This report is intended to summarize the key lessons from these interviews into two parts: (1) the unmet gaps & needs in reentry and (2) best practices for starting (or reworking) your reentry program.

We hope that the report is inspiring and educational for all!


We have some great news to share today!

In an important shift, Contra Costa County eliminated the $150 fee the county charged people to seal their juvenile records. Many counties across the state still have such a fee.

In Contra Costa, now that the fee has been removed, every person, regardless of their income, can afford to file to seal their juvenile record, opening opportunities for them to move forward in their lives, like securing a stable job, getting permanent housing, acquiring a professional license, and obtaining loans.

As Stephanie Medley of Youth Justice Director at RYSE Youth Center in Richmond (RYSE), said, “Eliminating the fee creates accessibility and opportunity to a fresh start for young people.” Together with national organizing initiative All of Us or None, RYSE has advocated directly with the Contra Costa County Probation Department regarding elimination of the record-sealing fee since November 2013.

The county’s fee removal is aligned with AB-1756, Assembly member Nancy Skinner’s “Starting Over Strong” bill. On March 25, 2014, the California Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety voted to pass the bill. It has now gone to the Standing Committee on Appropriations for further consideration. To be enacted, the bill must go through several readings and then pass a vote in the Assembly, and several more readings in the Senate as well as a vote. The Assembly would then again vote on any additional changes. Finally, both houses will vote on the amended bill and if successful, it will be sent to Governor Brown for his approval. If enacted, the bill will further increase access to the juvenile record sealing process for youth by eliminating the fee statewideso that no Californian citizen will be unable to seal their record and restart their lives because of their economic status. To learn more about the statewide bill, click here to read a previous R&R blog post about it and click here to see the bill’s progress.

What great news to end the week with!

–The R&R Team


The San Quentin Prison Report: Hearing the Voices & Stories from Inside


Today we are excited to share with you “The San Quentin Prison Report,” a radio series written and produced by a group of men serving time at the prison. With varied and thoughtful stories, it’s a great introduction to the challenges of navigating life in prison and on parole. Every story is told by the men themselves, in their own words and voices. The series inspires the listener to see beyond the labels of “criminal” and “prisoner” and “inmate” and to appreciate the men as individuals with valuable stories and insight to share, and as people with huge potential to contribute to our society.

We’re excited about the SQ Prison Report program for a few reasons. First, the program gives participants at San Quentin valuable training in journalism, radio production, and public speaking. These are skills that will not only help the men to advocate for themselves after release, but will also be hugely useful when they begin seeking employment. More importantly though, the program provides an outlet for people serving time to tell their stories in their own voices, and offers listeners a way in to begin thinking about the broadcasters not as inmates or statistics, but as journalists, baseball players, medical assistants—human beings just like us with stories to tell. Last week’s report included a story about an all-star baseball game on San Quentin’s “field of dreams.” It included a profile of Sandy Rashid Lockhard, one of seven “gold coats” who spends his time at San Quentin assisting men with disabilities. Finally, it included a first person account of what it’s like to live with AIDS behind prison walls.

The San Quentin Prison Report airs on KALW (91.7 FM in the Bay Area) on occasional Mondays at 5:00PM. We encourage you to tune in, share with friends and family, and check out past reports online here!

— The R&R Team

Victory! Alameda Superior Court Judge Orders Restoration of Voting Rights for Tens of Thousands Disenfranchised Californians.


Michael Scott, one of the plaintiffs in the case, Michael Scott et al. v. Debra Bowen. Photo from the ACLU website. 

This week we blogged about an important case challenging the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters in California. Today we have some exciting news regarding the case – an Alameda County Superior Court Judge ruled that Secretary of State Debra Bowen illegally stripped people on Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS) and Mandatory Supervision under California’s Criminal Justice Realignment Act of their voting rights two years ago, saying they are in fact eligible to vote.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for California’s democracy,” said Michael Risher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “By following the plain language of our state’s voting laws, the court’s ruling will help ensure that in California, one of the nation’s most fundamental rights – the right to vote – will be protected and not restricted.”

”Our democracy belongs to everyone who lives in America, not just a select few,” said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of All of Us or None, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Democracy functions best when the largest number of citizens possible participate, including formerly incarcerated people.”

We at Root & Rebound applaud all the individuals and organizations that brought this lawsuit: the League of Women Voters of California, All of Us or None, The ACLU of California and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. This is an amazing victory for returning citizens in the state. It is also an encouraging sign for all of us who work to protect the rights of people in reentry – as a state and a nation, we are moving in the right direction – away from legal barriers and exclusion – to upholding the worth, dignity and contributions of all of our citizens.

See here and here for more details on the case.

Happy Friday!

– The R & R Team

Community Works Upcoming Performances!

Today, we wanted to draw your attention to two upcoming restorative justice theater productions put on by the talented and inspiring team at Community Works. As an organization, they do some amazing work and we can’t wait to see the shows!


1. In Between the Lines

This is the latest original production from Community Works’ ROOTS program, and based on the courageous and clear voices of students from Balboa High School, impacted by incarceration.

In the swirl of issues at play, including Racial profiling, Self-stereotyping, Addiction, Feelings of powerlessness, Poverty, Resentment, Getting Caught up in “The Game”, Keeping up Appearances, Absent fathers, Vicious cycles – what happens when we take a closer look between the lines?

When? Thursday, May 8, 2014 @ 7pm & Friday, May 9, 2014 @ 7pm

Price? $6.00 per person with group discounts available – Click here to purchase tickets!

Where? Bindlestiff Studio, 185 6th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103


2. Holla, Can You Feel Me?

The play written by formerly incarcerated young men and women who wrestling with these difficult questions – Rising Voices and Voices on the Rise.

How can formerly incarcerated men and women talk to each other about the difficult issues they are facing? The impact of past incarceration, the continual threat of violence and the constant fear of returning to jail are all challenges, that young people across the nation face everyday. 

When? Thursday, May 15, 2014 @ 7pm & Friday, May 16, 2014 @ 2pm & 7pm

Price? $10 with group discounts available – Click here to purchase tickets

Where? Bindlestiff Studio, 185 6th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103

Hope to see you there!

– The R & R Team

Important Case Challenging the Disenfranchisement of Tens of Thousands of Voters in California


Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

On February 14, 2014, The ACLU of California and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR) filed a lawsuit charging the state of California with unconstitutionally stripping tens of thousands of people of their right to vote.

Since 1974, when California voters approved Proposition 10, state law has been clear that the only people ineligible to vote in California are those who are in state prison or on parole. However, in December of 2011, the secretary of state issued a directive to local elections officials asserting that people are ineligible to vote if they are on post-release community supervision or mandatory supervision. These two categories of supervision were created under California’s Criminal Justice Realignment Act for people recently incarcerated for low-level, non-violent, non-serious crimes. Are these really people that we want to strip the right to vote from? And who makes the decision to do so?

The problem here was that this decision was made unilaterally by the secretary of state through a directive, without the input of millions of California voters. Since December 2011, more than 58,000 have been in local post-release programs according to Michael Risher at the ACLU – this decision will affect each and every one of them. This is something that all California voters should be up in arms about, “The law [in California] clearly establishes a presumption in favor of the right to vote, with only limited and specific exceptions,” said Meredith Desautels, staff attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “The Secretary of State unilaterally expanded these exceptions, without any public comment or input, disenfranchising thousands of members of our community and creating confusion around the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. This unconstitutional disenfranchisement particularly impacts communities of color, who are too often excluded from the democratic process.

Executive Director of All of Us or None, Dorsey Nunn said, “Society is much more secure when all people feel they are fully part of it. If we want formerly incarcerated Californians to be good citizens, we need to convince them that they are a part of society too. I have never met a graffiti artist who spray paints his own home or business.” We agree: if the goal of the realignment law is to reintegrate people back into the community, then disenfranchising those individuals is not only unconstitutional, but goes against the spirit of realignment.

We applaud the efforts of these groups and will be following this case closely on the blog. For those of you who want to read more about the case, a copy of the complaint is available here.

Website Feature: Reentry Resources Center


Hi Readers!

Thanks to everyone who has written to us about our new website. We have received an overwhelmingly positive response– which has been really encouraging! Today, we are highlighting a special section on the website: the Reentry Resource Center, with free current information that targets many of the common questions and concerns of people in reentry and their advocates. This is a feature we are really excited about!

Why did we create the Reentry Resource Center?

We created the Reentry Resource Center as a go-to free online resource for people preparing for or in reentry, their advocates, and the wider public. Why? (1) There isn’t enough information out there for people in reentry and (2) the resources that do exist are not centralized in one, easy to access place. People in reentry need information about where they are allowed to live, the kinds of jobs they can apply for, and whether they can see their children again.

Who is it for?

This hub aims to make reentry resources (legal resources, social service resources, and reports/studies on reentry) directly accessible to people preparing for or in reentry. It is also for their advocates: the social worker, the close friend, the reentry lawyer, working to provide support.

What resources are available and how are they organized?

Currently, there are 3 types of resources available online: (1) Legal Resources for People in Reentry and Their Advocates; (2) Social Service Resources- Guides for CA programs and services; and (3) Studies and Reports on Reentry Issues.

(1)  Legal Resources for People in Reentry and Their Advocates

So many people in reentry don’t have access to an attorney and we are limited in our reach for whom we can provide direct services. Putting legal reentry resources online ensures that people who can’t step into our office for consultation or attend our legal trainings will still have a reference where they can access the legal information that is out there. This section is full of resources that pertain to specific areas of law and barriers people face: general resources, probation and parole rules, housing law, public benefits law, employment law, family law, education law, immigration law, expungement, and voting laws.

What is exciting to us about 2014 is that we are developing a California “Know Your Rights Guide” which will cover eight key areas of law and will be a one-stop resource for people in reentry to get the legal information they need to understand what rights, protections, restrictions, and risks exist under law. This will be available online and in print in September of this year, and we hope it will be utilized by thousands of people across the state and country!

Disclaimer: When we put together legal information, we do our best to make sure it is useful and accurate – and we periodically be check it for currentness. Of course, the laws change frequently and are subject to differing interpretations so when using the legal material, please be aware that the laws may have changed, and do check whether if it is still applicable to your situation.

(2) Social Service Resources- Guides to CA Programs and Services

People in reentry often don’t know where to go for programs and services that they need, from mental health services to housing; from vocational training to education; from parenting classes to food pantries and clothing closets. This can be remedied by having a centralized place online that collects and shares existing guides to services across the state.

More guides for programs and services need to be created. There simply are not enough of these guides in existence. We at Root & Rebound are developing our own resource guide for Alameda County (available from August 2014) and working with others in counties across the state to promote the creation of these resource guides for their counties.

(3)  Studies and Reports on Reentry Issues

Here we share scholarship from around the country on all areas of reentry and criminal justice issues for people who want to learn more. This is a place to share in the excitement of the movement across the nation away from mass incarceration and to a focus on bringing people back to the community with the support they need.

We are very shortly publishing a report, Voices From The Field (May 2014), which brings together the voices of practitioners, individuals and advocates that Root & Rebound staff interviewed about the reentry landscape nation wide and the major gaps and unmet needs in reentry. It also shares best practices in starting a reentry program.


We are excited to share this feature today and we hope our readers will share the resources with individuals, groups, and the wider community. Spread the word!

Lastly, if you have any suggestions on how we can improve to this resource center, please let us know! We would love to hear from you. Comment here or email!

Thanks for being a part of our work!

– The R & R Team