The ACLU of Rhode Island today released a report sharply critical of Governor Donald Carcieri’s civil rights record during the first year of his second term in office. The 50-page report “The Politics of Division,” focuses on five major issues the Governor has dealt with this year, and argues that “in a period of just a few months and in a wide variety of contexts, he has shown a virtually complete lack of interest in recognizing, much less protecting, the civil rights of individuals and groups that have been long-standing victims of discriminatory treatment.”

The report examines in depth specific actions that the Governor has recently taken that affect the rights of immigrants, women, blacks and Latinos, gays and lesbians, and juveniles. The particular issues addressed are:

  • The Rights of Immigrants: English-Language Interpreters. The Governor’s recent public comments enthusiastically supporting the elimination of state-funded English-language interpreters displayed a complete disregard for basic civil rights laws and only add to a disturbing xenophobic streak that is present in debates about immigration in the state.
  • The Rights of Women: No-Fault Divorce/Mothers on Welfare. The Governor’s gratuitous and anachronistic attack on the state’s no-fault divorce laws for encouraging women to pursue educational opportunities was an affront to decades of progress in the area of women’s rights. This has been highlighted by his recent verbal attacks against women on welfare as being unfit mothers solely because of their status as single parents.
  • The Rights of Blacks and Latinos: Mandatory Drug Sentencing. In vetoing a bill that eliminated the state’s draconian mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, the Governor not only ignored the proposal’s beneficial impact on the state’s ongoing prison population crisis and deep fiscal problems, he closed his eyes to the severe and discriminatory impact of drug sentencing laws on the state’s African-American and Latino population.
  • The Rights of Gays and Lesbians: Domestic Partner Benefits. The Governor’s veto of a bill to treat domestic partners of state and municipal employees the same as spouses for purposes of certain retirement and death benefits, combined with his rhetoric on other issues affecting the LGBT community, demonstrate a hostility to the non-heterosexual residents of Rhode Island that undermines decades of progress in the state’s treatment of gays and lesbians.
  • The Rights of Juveniles: Sending 17-Year-Olds to the ACI. The Governor’s support for legislation moving all 17-year-olds out of the juvenile justice system and into adult court, followed by his apathy to the outcry that followed passage of that law, demonstrated a bland indifference to the impact of his policies on young people in our community and a troubling lack of concern for the legislation’s significant adverse impact on racial minorities.

Many organizations have criticized the Governor’s actions on one or more of these issues in the recent past. For example, twenty-two organizations sent a letter criticizing his comments on interpreters, more than a dozen groups supported the mandatory minimum sentencing repeal bill, and many entities submitted verbal or written testimony to legislative committees against sending 17-year-olds to adult court.  However, the ACLU report is the first attempt to provide a broader picture of the Governor’s recent activities on this array of civil rights issues.

The report argues that the Governor’s combined actions on these issues “can only be seen as promoting a politics of division” that “gives official voice to nativist fears, to a ‘blame the victim’ mentality against the poor, and to bias against a range of groups in society that have faced widely-tolerated discrimination and prejudicial attitudes for decades. This is not what a state leader should exemplify.”

The report also called “jarring” the “gratuitous nature” of some of his attacks on civil rights:

“It is bad enough that, with little concern for federal civil rights law, the Governor denounces the use of state-funded interpreters in the courts and for clients seeking state assistance. It is worse that, in responding to critics of that position; he suggests the state should enact divisive “English-only” legislation as well. It is bad enough that he uses taxpayer money to hire a private attorney to file a court brief to denounce – and denounce unnecessarily – civil unions. It is worse when he uses the brief as an occasion to irrelevantly attack no-fault divorce as well. It is bad enough that he proposes legislation to send all 17-year-old offenders to adult court and the ACI, and then shows little concern when the only rationale provided for enacting the proposal appears to have no validity. It is worse when he refuses to sign a bill repealing the legislation, thus unnecessarily extending for a full week the impact of the ill-advised legislation on juveniles.”

The report concludes by calling on the other branches of government and community organizations to take steps to promote “equal justice for all” so that “Rhode Island’s legacy as a leader in civil rights can continue and move forward.”