Social Justice Advocacy Certificate of Concentration -
Essay Topics

The Southern Poverty Law Center has, over many years, been a leader in advocacy on behalf of a wide range of social justice causes, and has dedicated its law practice to the representation of groups and individuals who are victims of social injustice. Select one of these topics as the subject of your essay.

"A Positive Step: Banning Life Without Parole Sentences for Kids"

It took an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, but this week our nation officially recognized the obvious - children are fundamentally different from adults and our criminal justice system should not lock them up and throw away the key. The court's opinion banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth offenders is a significant step for a country that incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. For many, the pathway to prison begins in childhood. And too often, vulnerable children are held to the same standards and punished in the same way as adults. Every day in America, 7,500 children on average are incarcerated in adult jails. While some states give prosecutors wide discretion to decide when a child should be treated as an adult, research shows that human brain development is not complete until we reach our twenties. As a result, children do not have the same abilities as adults to make responsible decisions in complex situations or to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. But most important, children are by definition capable of change, and they should be given an opportunity to do so. We all suffer when we give up on them. Americans recognize that children are works in progress, but this belief isn't always evident in our judicial system. The court's opinion addresses the disconnect between what we know about children and a judicial practice that has cut their futures short. But we still have much work to do. At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we encounter children who have made terrible mistakes at a young age. Sadly, many of them are thrown into adult jails and prisons, where they receive substandard educational and rehabilitative services, are exposed to violence, and are denied the tools they need to learn from their mistakes. Children do not belong in jail. They are better served by programs in their community, which are designed to address their unique needs. These programs aim to teach positive skills, support appropriate social behavior, and address behaviors like substance abuse and delinquency. Children should be placed in programs that address the root of the problem. They should not be warehoused in adult jails and prisons.

"SPLC's Anoka-Hennepin Clients Honored by Department of Justice Employees"

Six middle and high school students who were plaintiffs in the Southern Poverty Law Center's federal lawsuit against their Minnesota school district were honored today by Department of Justice employees for their role in forcing the school district to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from bullying and violence. "These courageous students have come an incredible distance - from having suffered as victims of severe harassment at school because they are gay or perceived as gay to a place of empowerment after taking a stand for the dignity and rights of students everywhere," said their SPLC lawyer, who led an investigation of the school district following a string of tragic suicide deaths. The students were plaintiffs in an SPLC lawsuit against the school district that was resolved with the adoption of a wide-ranging plan to stop anti-LGBT harassment. The legal action, which was complemented by an intervening lawsuit by DOJ lawyers, sought to remind school districts around the nation that they must take seriously their obligation to protect students - including LGBT and gender nonconforming students - from harassment at school. The SPLC and its co-counsel sued the school district in 2011 for failing to take effective measures to counter a hostile anti-LGBT climate that resulted in students who are gay or perceived as gay being tormented daily with slurs and physical assaults. A gag policy that required staff "neutrality" on issues relating to sexual orientation hindered teachers from intervening and speaking out against such bias and abuse.

The consent decree is the most far-reaching ever in a safe-schools case. Among many features, it requires comprehensive training for all students, teachers and school officials. The legal action also resulted in the gag policy being replaced with a policy mandating a respectful learning environment for all students. The DOJ and the U.S. Department of Education will monitor the district for the next five years to ensure compliance.

"Systemic Discrimination in School Discipline"

In Louisiana's Jefferson Parish Public School System, African-American students face a harsh reality. Typical teenage misbehavior, such as horseplay or cursing, doesn't result in a trip to the principal's office. Instead, these students are shipped off to alternative schools where they often languish for months, even years. They sit in front of a computer screen for hours as they work through a series of online courses. There is a teacher in the room, but the teacher is simply there to answer questions. There is no instruction, no classroom discussions or extracurricular activities. No accommodations are made for students with disabilities. But it's the numbers that tell the most disturbing story: African-American students account for 78 percent of all alternative school referrals in Jefferson Parish. But they are only 46 percent of the district's student population. And, sadly, these students may be the lucky ones. Breaking a school rule in Jefferson Parish often results in an arrest for African-American students. During the 2009 - 2011 school years, African-American students accounted for more than three-quarters of all school arrests in the district. Such discriminatory policies criminalize African-American youth by pushing them out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system for typical student misbehavior.

Across the South SPLC has found school districts where students of color or students with disabilities bear the brunt of discriminatory policies, including instances where students of color have been handcuffed, shackled or even pepper-sprayed for minor violations of school rules. These problems are systemic, the result of assumptions that cast any misbehavior by a youth of color as a telltale sign of inherent criminality. This observation is supported by statistics showing that African-American youth are much more likely to be stopped by police and to be arrested than their white peers for similar offenses.

"Privatization of Prisons"

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in an open letter to members of the Louisiana House, outlined the fiscal and human dangers of House Bill 850, which would allow the state to accept offers for the private purchase and operation of Avoyelles Correctional Center.

Dear members of the House: We all want safe communities. And we'd all rather see our tax dollars invested in education and job creation that benefits ordinary Louisianans--not corporations or special interest groups. That's why you must vote against House Bill 850. Through this legislation, the private prison lobby is trying to expand their profits at the expense of our communities.

A number of correctional experts in Louisiana have made it clear that our state locks up too many people who commit low-level crimes. To be sure, we need to protect Louisianans from violent criminals and keep our communities safe. But homegrown experts, such as Burl Cain, Warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, have decried the incredible taxpayer waste that occurs when people who are not a threat to public safety end up behind bars. Because private prison companies make a profit only when their beds are filled, we can expect to waste even more money incarcerating the wrong people if HB 850 becomes law. According to the Justice Policy Institute, in 2010 alone, The Correctional Corporation of American (CCA) and the GEO Group had combined revenues of $2.9 billion. There is now big money to be made in the private sector in incarceration, but that money is made with our tax dollars, and with enormous social costs, which will hurt Louisiana.

The fiscal note attached to this bill reveals that any short-term savings will be significantly offset by long-term costs. After Louisiana sells the prison, taxpayers will still be obligated to pay for prison operations - and this money will go directly to private prison operators. Once the private prison company owns the facility it will be in a position to demand that taxpayers pay higher costs - and, as the fiscal note projects, the cost of operations will increase significantly. The goals and priorities section of the Louisiana Department of Corrections website states, "We provide for the safety of staff and offenders by maintaining an organized and disciplined system of operations which enhance the stability of all programs... We promote moral rehabilitation... and will provide an environment for offenders which enables positive behavior change.'' The profit motives of private companies are not aligned with the goals of rehabilitation and safety. Quite frankly, there is little incentive for private companies to provide rehabilitative treatment and services. In fact, the incentive to cut costs to maximize profits presents a threat to the safety of prison staff and prisoners.

"Court Approves Agreement by Arkansas Company to Pay $1.5 Million to Guest-workers owed Back Wages in SPLC Lawsuit"

A federal court has approved a $1.5 million settlement agreement the Southern Poverty Law Center reached on behalf of more than 1,500 guest-workers owed back wages by an Arkansas agricultural company. One of the Southeast's largest employers of guest-workers, agreed to the settlement more than four years after the SPLC brought a federal lawsuit against the company on behalf of the workers. "This settlement sends an important message to all guest-workers that they have rights that are protected by this country's judicial system," said the lead SPLC attorney on the case. "It's also an important message for the companies that employ guest-workers. These workers are not disposable labor." The guest-workers harvested and packed tomatoes for the company from 2003 to 2007. The 2007 federal lawsuit alleged that the company failed to pay its guest-workers federally mandated minimum wages, and overtime wages for work in its packing sheds. With travel expenses and applications for H-2A visas, the workers paid up to $500 simply to work for the company during eight-week harvests. The SPLC lawsuit alleged the company refused to reimburse workers for the travel, visa and other fees they paid to obtain the jobs - a problem commonly faced by guest-workers.