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.
May 18, 2010 - Posted by Tyler Lewis
The U.S. Supreme Court held yesterday (6-3) that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment does not permit the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses.
May 14, 2010 - Posted by Tyler Lewis
The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently adopted changes to the federal sentencing guidelines to permit crimes in which the victim is intentionally selected on the basis of gender identity to be eligible for sentencing enhancements.
April 27, 2010 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
Juvenile justice advocates recently told the House Education and Labor Committee that reauthorization of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) must close loopholes that have allowed some states to treat juvenile offenders like adults.
March 29, 2010 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, recently testified before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties and urged Congress to pass the Democracy Restoration Act.
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.
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
In The News
Recent news clips on this issue.