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Spring 2016 TLIP application released

(Houston, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis released the application for the Spring 2016 class of the Texas Legislative Internship Program (TLIP). TLIP is an educational internship program sponsored by Senator Ellis and administered by Texas Southern University. TLIP provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to serve as interns in the Texas Legislature, various state agencies, and local government. Applications are available on Senator Ellis’ website and must be submitted by October 30, 2015.

“The Texas Legislative Internship Program is my pride and joy,” said Senator Ellis. “It provides an opportunity to gain valuable, firsthand knowledge into how government works and insight into the critical issues facing Texas.”

Senator Ellis was inspired to create TLIP in 1990 because his mentor, the late Congressman Mickey Leland, stressed the importance of using one’s individual success to provide opportunities for others. As Leland’s Chief of Staff, Ellis established an internship program in Congressman Leland’s office and carried on that tradition when elected to public office.

What began as a small group of students 25 years ago has blossomed into one of the most successful legislative internship programs in the nation. TLIP has provided more than 670 students valuable experiences in the Texas Legislature, the offices of the Texas Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, city and county offices, and even Texas Monthly magazine. Past TLIPers have gone on to work in the White House, Congress, various state agencies, and the private sector, and three – Ana Hernandez, Armando Walle, and Ron Reynolds – are current members of the Texas House of Representatives.

TLIP Class of 2015

Sen. Ellis with the Spring 2015 TLIP class

 The 65 interns in the Spring 2015 class worked in offices both inside and outside of the Texas Capitol, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, Texas Supreme Court, Senators, Representatives, advocacy organizations, and elsewhere.

Students receive a minimum of six and a maximum of fifteen academic credit hours for participating in the program, which combines academic study and research with supervised practical training. Undergraduate and graduate students interested in the political process and the kind of humanitarian service exemplified by Congressman Leland are encouraged to apply for admission to TLIP. A TLIP internship lasts for one academic semester, provides a $7500 stipend, and affords students an opportunity to experience public service firsthand.

To learn more about TLIP, please visit www.rodneyellis.com/tlip or call Senator Ellis’ district office at (713) 236-0306.

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Important bills become law today

(Houston, TX) // More than 650 pieces of legislation that passed during the 84th Legislative Session become effective today, September 1. With so many changes occurring in one day, it’s easy for some to escape the public’s notice. See below for handful of bills that Senator Ellis authored, sponsored, or was proud to support:

SB 487 by Sen. Ellis, sponsored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson
SB 487 helps to clean up Texas’ DNA testing laws. Specifically, it enables a judge to allow DNA testing on key evidence that is not readily visible to the naked eye but is likely to contain probative biological material. Previous Court of Criminal Appeals decisions had interpreted the law to require someone to prove that microscopic biological evidence exists before a judge could allow testing. But proving nearly invisible skin, saliva, or sweat cells exist without allowing testing is practically impossible. This severely restricts a judge’s ability to order DNA testing, even when the defendant has shown that the evidence in question is likely to contain biological material.

SB 487’s simple change ensures Texas judges can properly allow post-conviction DNA testing in cases they believe will lead the discovery of crucial evidence, will help increase public safety, and promotes a more accurate, reliable, and transparent justice system.

SB 1448 by Sen. Ellis, sponsored by Rep. Rick Miller
SB 1448 fixes a problem where Texans have had their democratic rights disenfranchised because of administrative problems. Previously, when there is no party chair in a county, that county can’t run a primary election. Because of this, Texas is the only state that has residents who can’t participate in a presidential and statewide primary. Just because someone lives in a rural or underserved area does not make their vote and voice less valuable.

SB 1448 fixes this by allowing state political parties to contract with county elections officials to hold statewide and presidential primaries in counties without a party chair. This change will provide the folks left out of the primary system a chance to participate by bringing in outside resources.

HB 638 sponsored by Sen. Ellis, authored by Rep. Anchia
In 2009, the Legislature passed the Tim Cole Act, which entitles wrongfully convicted persons to a lump sum payment and a monthly annuity that is guaranteed for his or her lifetime. It’s the least the state can do to make up for what is often years behind bars for a crime the person didn’t commit.

HB 638 modifies the Tim Cole Act to allow wrongfully convicted persons the option to reduce their annuity payments in order to extend those payments to their surviving spouse or designated beneficiary upon their death. Family members of wrongfully convicted persons are deprived of both the emotional and financial support of their loved one while they are incarcerated, and this bill attempts to make these families whole by allowing a wrongfully convicted person to plan for the care of their loved ones upon their death.

SB 158 by Sen. West, co-authored by Sen. Ellis
SB 158 promotes and expands the use of police officer body cameras, complete with proper checks and balances on their operation and accessibility. This legislation provides an opportunity for counties and municipalities to apply for grant funding to defray the cost of implementing a body camera program. Departments receiving grants will be required to provide a 25 percent match and will be subject to a policy and training requirements. With more police departments across the state adopting  this common sense reform, SB 158 will provide a source of state grant funding and best practices for departments to consider adopting.

HB 2150 by Rep. Alvarado, sponsored by Sen. Whitmire
HB 2150 ends the broken “key man” – or “pick-a-pal” – grand jury system in Texas and requires grand jurors in most cases to be picked randomly, just as we select trial jurors. This will help to ensure that grand juries, which review criminal complaints and decide whether there is sufficient evidence for a criminal indictment, are representative of their communities. In addition, the new law will provide the presiding judge with the ability to remove grand jurors who neglect their duty and the flexibility to appoint up to four alternate grand jurors. Senator Ellis supported HB 2150 and coauthored the Senate version of the bill.

HB 2398 by Rep. White, sponsored by Sen. Whitmire 
The legislature reformed the state’s truancy system that had resulted in thousands of Texas children with criminal records simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their fines. HB 2398 prohibits schools from sending students with three unexcused absences in a four week period to truancy courts, and instead requires parent notification and a warning to be issued along with possible consequences of more absences such as a fine or loss of driving privileges. The bill also requires meetings to take place between school officials and parents and makes students attend a truancy prevention program. Senator Ellis supported HB 2398.

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Sen. Ellis on UT statue hearing

(Houston, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement regarding today’s ruling by Travis County District Judge Karin Crump on the University of Texas at Austin’s attempts to move a statue of Jefferson Davis:

“I’m pleased that, once again, UT can begin the process of removing the Jefferson Davis statue from the campus’ Main Mall. We shouldn’t glorify people whose main claim to historical relevance stems from their defense of human slavery.”

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Senator Ellis and Senator Garcia work to combat low voting

(Houston, TX) // Senators Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) are joining the NAACP, LULAC, and Texas Civil Rights Project in a civic engagement campaign to promote voter registration and engagement in Houston.

Thanks to a partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor, the Senators will post over 20 billboards in English and Spanish in the greater Houston area to encourage citizens to register and vote ahead of November’s general election. Advertising space is being donated by Clear Channel Outdoor to the NAACP and LULAC for the campaign and is valued in excess of $75,000. Hundreds of thousands potential voters will view these messages over the coming five weeks prior to the voter registration deadline, which is October 5.

Voting billboard 2015

Click here for Senator Ellis’ billboard, and click here for Senator Garcia’s.

“I am honored to participate in this campaign to increase voter engagement in our community,” said Ellis. “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this month, we must take action to preserve what earlier generations fought to secure. The easiest first step is to vote. This November, Houston will undergo a dramatic change in our city’s leadership, electing a new mayor, city controller, and a number of city council and school board members. I want my constituents’ voices to be heard by making sure they’re registered to vote.”

“I am a proud Texan, but I know we can do better,” said Garcia. “Texas consistently ranks lowest in voter registration and participation, and as elected officials we should do everything we can to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote feels welcome at the polls. It’s time for Texans and Houstonians to step up and show the rest of the nation that we are invested in making this state greater for our families by making our voices heard in the November election.”

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Senators Ellis & Zaffirini on UT’s Confederate statues

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) released the following statement regarding the future of the Confederate statues on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin:

“We are glad that Jefferson Davis no longer will be glorified on the Main Mall of The University of Texas at Austin, and we thank President Fenves for taking on this important task so soon during his tenure as president. This is an encouraging initial step, but we hope it leads to ongoing honest, critical conversations about the legacies of the historical figures honored on campus.

“This has never been about trying to alter or erase history. Instead, it’s about who we choose to honor at our public institutions, and we believe we shouldn’t honor men whose main claim to historical relevance stems from their defense of human slavery.

“We hope the conversation at UT will encourage state leaders to have a similar debate about the numerous Confederate statues that dot the Capitol grounds. We renew our previous request — one that’s been echoed by many legislators, both Democrat and Republican — to create a task force to begin a serious conversation about how best to honor Texas’ past, ensure historical accuracy and celebrate figures who are relevant to our state and worthy of our praise.

“We hope that such a task force can be convened and recommendations developed before the next legislative session convenes in January, 2017. Addressing this issue is important for Texans of all backgrounds, including the many children who visit the Capitol and are confronted with an inaccurate version of history that exalts the Confederacy.”

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Sandra Bland’s death should focus our efforts on reform

A traffic stop for a lane change resulted in death. Many unanswered questions remain about how we ultimately lost Sandra Bland, but the unfortunate truth is our broken criminal justice system played a major role in her tragic passing.

While we can’t bring Bland back, we can look at the systemic problems that led to her death and decide to move forward by implementing specific policy reforms to create a more equitable and effective justice system for all people and prevent the needless destruction of more lives.

As anyone who has seen the dashcam video can attest, Bland’s traffic stop was clearly mishandled by the arresting officer. Though most of our officers serve honorably, as with any public servant, we must have transparency and accountability. We need more police training in de-escalation techniques and how to build better relationships with the communities they serve, body cameras must become mandatory, interrogations should be recorded, and independent investigations should occur in officer-involved deaths.

After the traffic stop, Bland was arrested and taken to jail. Taking away someone’s freedom by locking them in cell is a serious act that should only happen when it’s necessary to protect public safety. To ensure that’s the case, we must move away from wasteful and ineffective policies of mass incarceration — particularly the war on drugs — and towards more effective and less destructive smart-on-crime strategies for low-level, non-violent offenses.

By advancing policies like pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion, prohibiting arrests for minor offenses like Class C misdemeanors, and encouraging greater use of Texas’ cite-and-release statute, we can make sure we only put folks behind bars who are a threat to public safety.

Once the decision was made to arrest Bland, she could have been booked and released by the magistrate. Instead, she was confined in jail without being convicted of a crime because she couldn’t afford bail. Her situation wasn’t unique. More than 60 percent of people in Texas jails — and 80 percent of the people housed in Waller County Jail over the past year — haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, the vast majority are there simply because they don’t have enough money to get out.

Someone’s danger to the community should determine bail, not their wealth. Requiring risk assessments and utilizing proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk arrestees — like personal bonds, electronic monitoring, or simple check-ins — can make sure we’re only confining people in jail awaiting trial if we know they’re a threat to the community.

At the time of Bland’s death, she had yet to be granted her constitutional right to counsel. If she had, she might have had her rights better protected and the opportunity to advocate for appropriate pre-trial release. By simply appointing counsel at the earliest stages and expanding and funding public defender offices, we can do a better job of safeguarding Texans’ constitutional rights.

Lastly, it is equally important that we ensure our laws are enforced equitably. What part race played in Bland’s mistreatment is impossible to quantify, but the effect of race in our justice system can’t be ignored. The numbers don’t lie: Blacks in Texas are imprisoned at almost five times the rate of whites and at seven times the rate of whites for drug possession.

Those are astonishing disparities that should cause alarm. As Bland’s case shows us, those aren’t just statistics — they are real lives being destroyed. It’s time for Texas to conduct a honest examination of the effectiveness of our justice practices and the equality of their enforcement. We can then determine why such racial disparities exist at each stage of our justice system and implement reforms to remedy them.

Let’s do our part to make sure that Bland’s legacy isn’t just a life needlessly lost, but a spark that inspires us to take action. After more than 30 years of mass incarceration and a shameful history of unequal justice for communities of color and the poor, Texas has an obligation to create a justice system that ensures all people are treated equally and fairly under the law.

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50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

Dear Friend:

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This historic law was passed in response to an era in which many states, particularly in the south, mandated literacy tests, poll taxes, and other devices to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of the African American vote.

VRA50

There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grassroots organizers who sacrificed blood and tears fighting these discriminatory devices in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background.

We have come a long way to guarantee our citizens’ right to vote is protected, but we still have a long way to go. Instead of poll taxes and literacy tests of yesteryear, states now use controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to suppress the vote. In Texas, a federal court ruled last October that the state’s voter ID law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” Just yesterday, the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act.

When it comes to redistricting, Texas was the only state in the country that adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that have been ruled to be deliberately discriminatory against African American and Latino voters.

We are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

Recently, Battleground Texas and Waters & Kraus LLP sent a letter to Texas’ Secretary of State on behalf of eleven Texas voters revealing further disturbing  reports of Texans’ voting rights being denied. Under federal law, whenever eligible voters apply for, renew, or update their driver’s licenses at a Department of Public Safety office, the state must give them a chance to register to vote or update their registration records.

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Yet as the letter explains, the Texas voters named in the letter were unable to cast regular ballots in the 2014 general election either because their names were not listed on the registration rolls or their address information was outdated – even though each registered to vote through DPS. Several of these disenfranchised voters were denied the right to vote conventionally and forced to cast provisional ballots, some of which were not counted. One voter was unable to vote altogether.

The experiences of these eleven are examples of the systematic problems Texas citizens have faced. In less than two years, almost 5,000 Texans have complained to the Secretary of State about voter registration problems at DPS. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, as those 5,000 are only the voters who made the effort to get their complaint on record. The majority of those complaints were reportedly caused by either a clerk at DPS failing to transmit the person’s request to be registered to vote or a confusing system that made it unclear whether people who updated their driver’s license information online also automatically updated their voter registration information, as well.

Unfortunately, voter registration problems at DPS are not new. A series of articles by the Houston Chronicle alerted state officials to these registration glitches as early as 2012.

I was encouraged  by the Houston Chronicle’s recent report that the Secretary of State’s office agreed to investigate these complaints and review the policies and procedures that caused them. This is an encouraging first step, and I urge the state to work with stakeholders in good faith to find common sense, inexpensive solutions to the chronic registration problems at DPS.

Litigation shouldn’t be the only tool our citizens have to guarantee their right to vote – especially in Texas, where we repeatedly rank near the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2014, turnout was 28.9 percent, ranking second to last in the nation. In 2012, it was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th.

Working together, we can identify reforms that will not only protect Texas voters and increase voter engagement but will also make our voter rolls more accurate and secure.

selma

The words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking to Congress 50 years ago, remain apt today: “We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait … the time for waiting is gone.”

Sincerely,
Rodney Ellis


Remembering Mickey

Tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of the tragic death of Congressman Mickey Leland, my boss, friend, and mentor.mickey

Mickey died as he lived, trying to end world hunger and serving as a voice for the voiceless. His story is worthy of celebration and remembrance, as the values he embraced still live on more than a quarter of a century later.

I still miss Mickey every day, but the lessons that he taught me will always guide my public service. He taught me that there are no lost causes or unwinnable fights. He taught me that patience, cooperation, and dedication are the small but vital steps of progress.

He taught me that change comes in constant and consistent action, not in one fell swoop.  He taught me that we are responsible not just for ourselves and our families, not just for our friends or neighbors, but for the people and children of the world.

And he taught me that we can all make a difference if we simply choose to get involved and take a stand.

So I am using the anniversary of Mickey’s passing as a moment to rededicate myself to the values that he espoused: courage, compassion, and a commitment to all people. I hope today’s solemn occasion will cause more to follow his lead.

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Sen. Ellis on 5th Circuit’s voter ID ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to today’s ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Texas’ voter ID law:

“I’m pleased that the 5th Circuit agreed with the U.S. District Court’s findings that Texas’ voter ID law will have a discriminatory effect, preventing otherwise eligible voters from having their voice heard. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and today’s unanimous ruling by the 5th Circuit proves the law is still an essential part of protecting Americans’ access to the ballot box. Near last in the country in voter turnout, Texas should be working to get more folks to the polls – not to turn away legal, legitimate voters.”

“I call on Texas to do the right thing for once and not appeal the 5th Circuit’s decision.”

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Ellis: Reforms needed to protect and engage Texas voters

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This historic law was passed in response to an era in which many states, particularly in the south, mandated literacy tests, poll taxes, and other devices to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of the African American vote. There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grassroots organizers who sacrificed blood and tears fighting these discriminatory devices in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background. We have come a long way to guarantee our citizens’ right to vote is protected , but we still have a long way to go.

Instead of poll taxes and literacy tests of yesteryear, states now use controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to suppress the vote. In Texas, a federal court ruled last October that the state’s voter ID law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” When it comes to redistricting, Texas was the only state in the country that adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that have been ruled to be deliberately discriminatory against African American and Latino voters.

We are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

Recently, Battleground Texas and Waters & Kraus LLP sent a letter to Texas’ Secretary of State on behalf of eleven Texas voters revealing further disturbing  reports of Texans’ voting rights being denied. Under federal law, whenever eligible voters apply for, renew, or update their driver’s licenses at a Department of Public Safety office, the state must give them a chance to register to vote or update their registration records.

Yet as the letter explains, the Texas voters named in the letter were unable to cast regular ballots in the 2014 general election either because their names were not listed on the registration rolls or their address information was outdated – even though each registered to vote through DPS. Several of these disenfranchised voters were denied the right to vote conventionally and forced to cast provisional ballots, some of which were not counted. One voter was unable to vote altogether.

The experiences of these eleven are examples of the systematic problems Texas citizens have faced. In less than two years, almost 5,000 Texans have complained to the Secretary of State about voter registration problems at DPS. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, as those 5,000 are only the voters who made the effort to get their complaint on record. The majority of those complaints were reportedly caused by either a clerk at DPS failing to transmit the person’s request to be registered to vote or a confusing system that made it unclear whether people who updated their driver’s license information online also automatically updated their voter registration information, as well.

Unfortunately, voter registration problems at DPS are not new. A series of articles by the Houston Chronicle alerted state officials to these registration glitches as early as 2012.

I was encouraged  by the Houston Chronicle’s recent report that the Secretary of State’s office agreed to investigate these complaints and review the policies and procedures that caused them. This is an encouraging first step, and I urge the state to work with stakeholders in good faith to find common sense, inexpensive solutions to the chronic registration problems at DPS.

Litigation shouldn’t be the only tool our citizens have to guarantee their  right to vote – especially in Texas, where we repeatedly rank in the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2014, turnout was 28.9 percent, ranking second to last in the nation. In 2012, it was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th.

Working together, we can identify reforms that will not only protect Texas voters and increase voter engagement but will also make our voter rolls more accurate and secure. The words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking to Congress 50 years ago, remain apt today: “We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait … the time for waiting is gone.”

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August 4 community forum: #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland

I am honored to partner with The Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy, Black Greeks Speak, and many other advocacy organizations to present tonight’s open discussion, #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland: “A Community Forum for Devising Strategies for Accountability in Combating this Epidemic.”

The event will be tonight from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs McCoy Auditorium on the campus of Texas Southern University, 3100 Cleburne St., Houston, Texas 77004. For more information, visit Eventbrite.com or call the Earl Carl Institute at 713-313-1139.

On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year old African American female, was found dead in her cell in the Waller County Jail. What started as police stop for a minor traffic violation ended with the tragic death of this young woman three days later.

Sandra’s death is not an isolated incident but a sobering reminder of the systematic issues we still face in our criminal justice system. In Texas, 60 percent of the individuals in the county jails across the state have yet been convicted of any crime. Instead, the majority of those not yet convicted merely cannot afford to post bail. Even though African Americans are 12 percent of the population in Texas, they make up 35 percent of those incarcerated in the state.

We must move forward toward a more fair, equitable, and effective justice system we can rely on. #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland will provide the community a forum to start the conversation on how we move forward and work together to reform the inadequacies in our criminal justice system.

Please join this important discussion to push this state forward and ensure that all people, regardless of color or class, are treated equally and fairly under the law.

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