Criminal Justice System
The United States has the largest prison population of any developed country in the world. A disproportionate number of people in the nation’s prisons and jails are low-income, undereducated, low-level, nonviolent people of color with drug convictions. Our system of mass incarceration is due almost entirely to the War on Drugs and its disproportionate focus on low-income, people of color. The system must be reformed so that it is no longer racially and ethnically discriminatory and incorporates more alternatives to incarceration.
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.
July 10, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
"I Am Troy Davis," in which supporters hold a picture of Davis in front of their face to symbolize the criminal justice system's disparate treatment of Black men. October 26, 2008, in Atlanta, Ga. Photo Credit: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed deciding if it would hear a case that could grant Troy Davis a new trial until the Court reconvenes in the fall.
Davis is a Georgia death row inmate who has insisted since his 1991 trial that he is innocent of the murder of police officer. His case has drawn international criticism from world leaders, including the European Parliament, Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict, who point to new evidence suggesting that Troy Davis could be innocent.
The Supreme Court granted Davis a stay of execution on September 23, 2008, but refused to hear the case requesting a new trial. The Court referred the case back to a lower Georgia court, which refused Davis a retrial but granted a 30-day stay of execution to permit Davis' lawyers time to petition the Supreme Court again. The Supreme Court's delay will likely keep the state of Georgia from setting a date for execution.
"The execution of a likely innocent man must not proceed, and we are thankful the Court has put the brakes on Troy's execution," said Benjamin T. Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.
July 9, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
Many Americans trust local and state law enforcement to protect them. However, when police departments abuse that trust, the F.B.I and the U.S. Department of Justice have the authority to recommend reforms and then monitor the department's progress.
Police mistreatment of citizens is classified as "color of law" abuse, meaning the use of authority granted by a local, state, or federal agency to infringe on constitutional rights. "Color of law" offenses include unlawful detainment and questioning of suspects, search and seizure of property, bringing of criminal charges, sexual assault, and the use of excessive force.
In 1991, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers brutally beat Rodney King, an African-American suspect, but were acquitted of charges of excessive force. This case prompted a series of federal investigations that revealed significant misconduct in the LAPD and in other police departments throughout the nation. With an increasing awareness of police misconduct, Congress included a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that authorizes the Department of Justice to file civil lawsuits against law enforcement agencies that engage in a pattern of violating people's rights and obtain a court order to monitor and reform them.
July 7, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
Rep. John Conyers, D. Mich., speaking at the June 2001 introduction of the End Racial Profiling Act. The bill has been introduced in previous Congresses, but hasn't passed. ERPA has not yet been introduced in this Congress.
A new report jointly authored by the Rights Working Group and the American Civil Liberties Union found that racial profiling by law enforcement agencies still persists on our nation's roadways, in airports, and near our border and urges 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.
"The U.S. government must take urgent, direct action to rid the nation of the scourge of racial and ethnic profiling and bring this country into conformity with both the Constitution and international human rights obligations," said Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program.
The report cited several studies in 22 states showing that African-American and Latino drivers are more than twice as likely to be stopped, searched, or arrested by law enforcement officers as White drivers. Racial and ethnic profiling has contributed to the overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the American criminal justice system, the report states.
The report also assessed federal programs, including Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism efforts, and found a rise in racial profiling of immigrants and foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries.
The report was submitted last week to a human rights body at the U.N. that monitors compliance with International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
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.