In Human Rights News: Reviews of 2013, Juvenile Justice, Exxon Mobile, and More

In Human Rights News: December 28, 2013 - January 3, 2014

In this week's Human Rights News we find issues related to reproductive justice, marriage equality, workers' rights, welfare, juvenile justice, authoritarianism, environmental justice, and healthcare.

YEAR REVIEW: ABORTION RESTRICTIONS. 2013 was a tough year for reproductive justice in the United States. The Guttmacher Institute, an organization dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health worldwide, reports that 2013 falls second only to 2011 in the number of new abortion restrictions passed in a single year. While a handful of states adopted new measures to expand access to reproductive healthcare, 22 states approved policies and legislation that limit access. The implementation of Texas' HB 2 has already shut down a third of the abortion clinics in a state with a history of limiting healthcare for low-income women of color and immigrants living near the border. Human rights advocates have pointed out the disproportionate effects of anti-choice legislation on low-income women. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute shows that unintended pregnancies in the U.S. are becoming increasingly concentrated among women with few resources. Publicly-funded family planning services such as Planned Parenthood are a vital resource for helping low-income women avoid pregnancy, and many states are working hard to defund these programs. Read more at Colorlines and click here for the Guttmacher update.

MARRIAGE EQUALITY IN 2013. Al Jazeera provided a review by Dexter Mullins this week of the mostly progressive developments for marriage equality in the U.S. during 2013. The landmark Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States overturned a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and cleared a path for federal government agencies to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples. Six states legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, bringing the total to 18 states and the District of Columbia. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, a major attitude shift that was reflected by an abundance of federal regulatory changes. Among the changes: the IRS started to let married same-sex couples file their taxes jointly and same-sex spouses are now eligible for military spousal benefits. However, despite all of the victories, the fight for marriage equality is far from over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 8 lesbians, 4 in 10 gay men, and nearly half of bisexual women and men nationwide have suffered some form of sexual violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, roughly 20 states and Washington D.C. still allow some form of "conversion therapy." Mullins writes that, while continued progress can be expected in 2014, it is "unlikely discrimination that runs as deep as homophobia will disappear as quickly as many want." Read more at Al Jazeera.

MINIMUM WAGE INCREASES. Although Congress failed to raise the minimum wage in this year of frequent worker strikes, many individual states took action to raise their minimum wages. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington all saw raises to the minimum wage on January 1st. USA Today made a graphic (found here) on the new minimum wage levels in these states and how they compare to wages in the rest of the country. While these are positive developments, it should be noted that not one of the increases reflects the $10.10 per hour amount being considered by Congress or the $15 per hour being demanded by thousands of workers and organizers. The new minimum wages range from $7.50 per hour (in Missouri) to $9.32 per hour (in Washington). In addition to the January 1st changes, the National Employment Law Project predicts that as many as 11 states and the District of Columbia will consider increases in 2014. Raising the minimum wage has been an important issue for labor activists and liberal economists in the past year, calling for increases for fast food employees and other low-paid workers. Labor groups argue that $7.25 is impossible to live on. The focus on this issue reflects growing concerns about the uneven spread of low-wage jobs in the economy, creating millions of financially struggling workers. Read more at USA Today and here at Al Jazeera.

MANDATORY DRUG TESTING FOR WELFARE RECIPIENTS RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL. On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a Florida law, Governor Rick Scott's signature legislation, that required welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug testing. Judge Mary S. Scriven of the U.S. District Court in Orlando ruled that the testing requirement violates the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. "The court finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied," she wrote. The decision follows a 2011 lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute on the behalf of navy veteran Luis W. Lebron, a full-time student who had registered for public assistance. Mr. Lebron, a single father who cared for his disabled mother, argued that mandatory drug testing without suspicion of drug abuse is unfair. In addition to being unjust, state data shows that the measure has produced meager results since it was passed in 2011. Out of 4,086 people tested, only 108 (2.6 percent) tested positive for narcotics. State records show that the measure ended up costing more money than it saved. Frances Robels of the New York Times writes that this case sets the stage for a legal battle that could affect similar legislation across the country. Read more at the New York Times.

JUVENILE LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. In These Times published an article this week about juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) and tells the story of Stacey Torrance. Torrance was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1988 for a murder that he was indirectly involved in at the age of 14. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional. However, the court case did not address the approximately 2,500 JLWOP sentences already being served in the nation. Some states determined that Miller should be fully retroactive, but others, including Pennsylvania where Torrance is serving his life sentence, ruled out retroactivity. In October 2013, Pennsylvania's supreme court ruled in the case of Ian Cunningham that the Miller decision would only apply to cases going forward. Pennsylvania is especially problematic because it has more juveniles serving life sentences than any other state in the country; out of the 2,500 prisoners sentenced to life without parole before turning 18, about 500 are in Pennsylvania. Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, told In These Times that he will work with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia to appeal the Cunningham case to the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2014. Read more at In These Times. In other JLWOP news, the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusettes ruled on a case last week that addresses the retroactivity issue. The decision retroactively prohibits life sentencing without parole for juveniles under all circumstances. Read more at Gazette Net.

OP-ED: THE TRANSITION TOWARDS AUTHORITARIAN RULE IN AMERICA. Dr. Robert P. Abele posted an op-ed piece on Global Research this Friday arguing that the U.S. is quickly moving from a liberal democracy to, at best, an authoritarian government. To demonstrate his point, he uses Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" address to Congress on January 6, 1941 as a basis for Roosevelt's understanding of a "moral democracy." The four freedoms can be summarized as: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Abele uses U.S. military aggression, income inequality, and NSA spying as examples of how far the country has strayed from democracy to authoritarianism, which he defines as political power being monopolized by an elite group. He warns that the country might even be headed toward fascism, defined by Abele as authoritarianism and totalitarianism combined with a strong nationalism and militarism. He proposes that the country must reiterate and organize around Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in order to "put the brakes on this bullet-train into headlong Fascism." Read the entire piece at Global Research.

EXXON SUBSIDIARY TO FACE CRIMINAL CHARGES. A Pennsylvania judge ruled this Thursday that Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary XTO Energy will face criminal charges for allegedly disposing of tens of thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) waste at a Marcellus Shale drilling site in 2010. After a preliminary hearing, Magisterial District Judge James G. Carn ruled that eight charges against Exxon (including state Clean Streams Law violations and Solid Waste Management Act violations) will be "held for court," meaning there is sufficient evidence for Exxon to go to trial over felony offenses. Pennsylvania's Attorney General filed criminal charges in September, declaring that Exxon pulled a plug from a wastewater tank which resulted in 57,000 gallons of contaminated water spilling into the soil. The most recent study of health risks related to Fracking was an article in the journal Endocrinology, which found chemicals that have been linked to infertility, birth defects, and cancer in water samples from fracking sites. Another study from the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA found that the proximity of residents to wells used in fracking corresponds to the likelihood that their drinking water is contaminated. Read more at Think Progress.

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT OPINIONS. Eugene Robinson posted an article on Truth Dig this week declaring the "fight over Obamacare is history," as evidenced by the 6 million previously uninsured Americans that received coverage through Medicaid expansions or the federal and state health insurance exchanges by the beginning of 2014. Now, legislators in the states that refused to participate in the federally funded Medicaid expansion will have to explain why many of their constituents (about 5 million throughout the country) remain uninsured. Robinson claims that Republican lawmakers have painted themselves into a corner by demonizing the program and the president for so long instead of working with the administration to make technical corrections. "Note to GOP: 'We refuse, under any circumstances, to make the law work better for the citizens we represent' is perhaps not the ideal campaign slogan for midterm elections," he writes. The ACA is far from perfect - the choice to build within the existing framework of private insurance companies meant creating an extremely complicated new system that still fails to provide universal coverage. Even if all 50 states had participated in the Medicaid expansion, only about 30 million of the 48 million uninsured would be covered. However, Robinson proposes that the ACA has established the principle that healthcare is a human right instead of a privilege. Read the full article at Truth Dig.

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in the news, reproductive justice, marriage equality, JLWOP, ACA, Exxon, LGBTQI, fracking, minimum wage