Criminal Justice System
Our criminal laws, while facially neutral, are enforced in a manner that is massively and pervasively biased. The injustices of the criminal justice system threaten to render irrelevant fifty years of hard-fought civil rights progress.
January 22, 2010 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill with substantial bipartisan support yesterday to establish a national commission that will undertake a comprehensive review and recommend key reforms to all areas of the criminal justice system.
The commission's mandate under the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2010 is to recommend ways to reduce incarceration rates, reform our nation's drug laws, identify meaningful prisoner re-entry programs, contain costs, improve treatment for the mentally ill, and restore public confidence in the system. After 18 months the 14-member commission would be required to submit its conclusions and recommendations to Congress and the president.
December 14, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
The American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Drug Policy Alliance, and The Sentencing Project are urging Congress to pass legislation that would restore the right to vote in federal elections to formerly incarcerated citizens.
November 9, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two separate cases to determine whether sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Sullivan v. Florida is the case of Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole 20 years ago at the age of 13. Graham v. Florida is the case of Terrance Jamar Graham, who violated parole at age 17 and was sentenced, without a trial, to life without parole. Both cases took place in Florida, one of only six states that have imprisoned juveniles for life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
Many civil rights groups, academics, and social scientists have spoken out against these sentencing practices. Charles Ogletree — who joined in a brief submitted by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., in support of Graham and Sullivan — said that the Court should apply the same logic to these case it used to decide Roper v. Simmons, which struck down capital punishment for minors as unconstitutional.
"The same transient qualities of adolescence that the Court relied upon in Roper make it similarly inappropriate to subject a teenager to a permanent punishment of life in prison without parole. It is cruel and inaccurate, as the Court has recognized, to pass a final and irreversible judgment on a person whose character is still forming and undergoing significant changes," Ogletree said.
October 23, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Webb, D. Va., that would establish a bipartisan commission to examine the nation's criminal justice system and figure out how to make it more effective and fair.
The commission would be tasked with identifying the system's strengths and weaknesses and making recommendations to Congress about reducing the incarceration rate, lowering crime rates, restructuring our approach to drug policy, improving the treatment of mental illnesses, and other reforms.
October 15, 2009 - Posted by Tyler Lewis
Sen. Dick Durbin, D. Ill., introduced legislation today that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, a disparity that has been widely considered to have a discriminatory effect on African Americans and low-income people.
Under current law, defendants convicted for possessing just five grams of crack cocaine – less than the weight of two sugar packets – are subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Yet, a defendant selling powder cocaine has to be caught selling 100 times – 500 grams – as much to get the same sentence.
The Fair Sentencing Act would raise the trigger for a five-year sentence for a crack cocaine conviction to 500 grams, the same amount that triggers a five-year sentence for a powder cocaine conviction.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that the bill "will fix a grave injustice in our nation's criminal justice system."
"Rather than solve our nation's drug trafficking problem, current law has created new problems, wasting valuable federal resources and diminishing respect for law enforcement in minority and low-income communities. We urge Congress to pass this bill quickly and restore basic fairness to our nation's drug laws," Henderson said.
September 30, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
The Rights Working Group recently launched a campaign, "Face the Truth," to eliminate racial and religious profiling.
Profiling is the exclusive reliance on racial, religious, or ethnic characteristics to determine the likelihood that a person committed an act or crime. While profiling is most associated with African Americans, profiling targets people of many races, religions, and ethnicities, such as Arab and Muslim Americans following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Latinos in immigration enforcement, and the Asian Americans following World War II.
The "Face the Truth" campaign's goals include: urging the Department of Justice to revise guidelines regarding profiling loopholes in national security and enforcement, ending immigration enforcement programs that often profile based on race, and pushing Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA). ERPA would prohibit all law enforcement agencies from racial profiling, require agencies to collect data on the number of stops, searches, and arrests by race and gender, and allow victims of racial profiling to sue local, state or federal authorities. Congress is expected to introduce ERPA later this session.
The campaign will also emphasize the ineffective and illegal nature of profiling, promote communication amongst targeted communities to better fight profiling, and building stronger relationships between law enforcement and their communities.
August 19, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
As states continue to cut funding for mental health programs, mentally ill youth are increasingly held in juvenile detention rather than receiving the medical care they need.
Currently, about two-thirds of inmates in juvenile detention centers across the country have a diagnosed mental illness. Juvenile detention centers often fail, or are ill-equipped, to provide mentally ill youth with the help they could get from mental health facilities.
At least 32 states have cut community mental health programs this year and plan to double reductions by 2010. Ohio has reduced funding for community-based mental health services by 34 percent. California's recent budget cuts entail cutting $92 million in funding for mental health services and reducing funding for community clinics by as much as 30 percent.
State cuts to mental health services exacerbate an already tough situation for many mentally ill youth seeking care. According to a 2006 study, for every 100,000 youths there are fewer than nine child psychiatrists.
August 17, 2009 - Posted by Tyler Lewis
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal court to hear new evidence in the case against Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis.
In 1991, Davis was found guilty of the murder of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Ga., based solely on eyewitness testimony. Since then, seven of the nine non-police officer witnesses have taken back their testimony against Davis. Many of the witnesses claim to have been pressured into providing damaging testimony against Davis by police officers eager for a conviction.
His case has drawn international criticism from the NAACP, members of Congress, and world leaders, including the European Parliament, Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict.
The Court granted Davis a stay of execution on September 23, 2008, but refused to hear the case requesting a new trial at that time.
July 30, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee passed 16-9 the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., which will eliminate the disparity between federal crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing.
Under current law, a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack receives a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. To receive the same sentence for powder cocaine, a person would have to possess 500 grams of powder – 100 times the amount of crack – even though both drugs are pharmacologically the same.
Both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission have recognized the unfairness in this disparity and have acted to reduce it. Only Congress is able to eliminate the disparity.
The Act sets the sentencing trigger at 500 grams for both types of cocaine. In addition, it eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence of five years for simple possession of crack cocaine.
The Senate is expected to introduce bipartisan legislation to eliminate the disparity in cocaine sentencing soon.
July 23, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
In an column in today's issue of Politico, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, urged Congress to equalize the federal sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
"Most Americans want to enforce tough laws against big-time drug dealers, and rightly so. But discriminatory laws do nothing to protect young people against dangerous drugs, diminish respect for the legal system and exacerbate the racial and economic inequalities that are fraying our social fabric," said Henderson.
Under current law, people convicted of possessing five grams of crack, the size of two sugar packets, will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. To get the same penalty for powder cocaine, a person would have to possess 500 grams of powder -100 times the amount of crack - despite the fact that the drugs are pharmacologically the same. More than 80 percent of the defendants in federal crack prosecutions are African American, and the law has convicted more low-level offenders than the so-called drug kingpins it was designed to capture.
Yesterday, a House subcommittee unanimously approved a bill (H.R. 3245) sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., that will equalize the federal sentences for crack and cocaine by requiring at least 500 grams of either kind of cocaine to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence of five years of prison time. A companion bill with bipartisan support is expected to be introduced soon in the Senate.
More Information On
Social Justice Brief: A Social Work Perspective on Drug Policy Reform - National Association of Social Workers
Reclaiming Our Rights: Reflections on Racial Profiling in a Post-9/11 America - Rights Working Group (2011)
The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs - The Sentencing Project
A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society - The Sentencing Project
Critical Condition: African American Youth in the Justice System (pdf) - Campaign for Youth Justice
Latest on criminal justice from Unfinished Business.
In The News
Recent news clips on this issue.