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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

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.

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Congress Gears up for Reform of Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

May 13, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Congress is closer than ever to eliminating a 100-to-1 disparity in federal cocaine sentencing that affects African Americans at much higher rates than Whites. 

In current federal drug sentencing law, someone who sells crack cocaine faces the same sentence as someone who sells 100 times as much powder cocaine. For example, someone who sells 5 grams of crack cocaine would receive the same 5-year mandatory minimum sentence as a person who sells 500 grams of powder cocaine.

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Death Penalty Opponent Sister Helen Prejean Celebrates Birthday This Week

April 22, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

head shot of Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean, one of the nation's leading advocates against the death penalty, celebrates her birthday this week.

Prejean became involved in death penalty issues more than 20 years ago after befriending a convicted rapist and murderer, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was on death row in Lousiana.  Prejean's met Sonnier through her order's community outreach program. During Sonnier's time on Louisiana's death row, Prejean visited him regularly and, in the course of those visits, began to learn more about how the state executed death row inmates.

Prejean's relationship with Sonnier became the first of many that she would have with death row inmates, which convinced her that the death penalty system is ineffective in administering justice.

"The death penalty, far from being a peripheral moral issue concerned about how we should punish a few terrible criminals, reveals the very soul of America.  It lays bare our deepest wounds as a nation -- our racism, our assault on poor people, and our ready instinct to use violence to solve social problems," said Prejean, during a speech at the Democratic Interfaith Gathering in Denver in August 2008.

Currently, 35 states allow capital punishment. In March, New Mexico repealed the death penalty, making it the second state to do so since a U.S. Supreme Court decision reinstated it in 1976. Five other states currently have pending legislation to abolish the death penalty.

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New Reports on Incarceration Rates for Drug Offenders and the Right to Counsel

April 15, 2009 - Posted by Tyler Lewis

Two reports released this week address civil rights issues in the criminal justice system:

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Senate to Reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

April 6, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Senator Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., recently introduced a bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), a law that was designed to reduce juvenile crime and protect children in the juvenile justice system.

Congress initially passed the JJDPA in 1974 to keep children from having contact with adults in jails and prisons and establish rules under which juvenile offenders can be detained.

However, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice, an average of 7,500 juveniles are incarcerated in adult jails every day because the JJDPA doesn't apply to children who are being tried as adults.  The new bill will strengthen restrictions on the pretrial detention of juveniles in adult jails and the detention of children who commit offenses like truancy or breaking curfew.  

The majority of youth in detention centers across the country are African American or Latino, even though the law was amended during a previous reauthorization in 1994 to require states to find out why disproportionate numbers of minority juveniles are detained. 

The new bill also provides federal funding for programs that prevent child delinquency and reduce crime and recidivism among youths

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Michigan Teenager Dies After Being Tasered by Police

March 23, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Fifteen-year-old Brett Elder died yesterday in Bay City, Mich., after he was Tasered by a police officer trying to break up a fight. State police are investigating the circumstances of the death.

Many law enforcement agencies in the United States use Tasers, a type of weapon that shoots dart-like electrodes on conductive wires, causing an electric shock which temporarily incapacitates the person who is struck.

Although Tasers are not meant to be lethal, a August 2008 report from Amnesty International found that in the United States since 2001, 334 individuals died after being struck by Tasers. Around 90 percent of those individuals were unarmed.

In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern about U.S. police using Tasers against "unruly schoolchildren," people with mental disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women, and unarmed suspects fleeing minor crimes. The committee called for Tasers and similar weapons to be used only where "greater or lethal force would otherwise have been justified."

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New Mexico Repeals Death Penalty

March 19, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed legislation today abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico, making it the second state to repeal the death penalty since a U.S. Supreme Court decision reinstated it in 1976. Fourteen other states do not permit the death penalty.

The new law takes effect July 1 and replaces the death penalty with a life sentence that has no possibility of parole.  It only applies to crimes committed after that date, and doesn't affect the sentences of the two men currently on death row in New Mexico.

Richardson said he signed the bill because of the risk that innocent people could be executed. "More than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated in the past 10 years in this country, including four New Mexicans — a fact I cannot ignore."

Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, applauded New Mexico's repeal of the death penalty and encouraged other states to consider doing the same, pointing out that "the death penalty drains resources from state coffers which could otherwise be used for much-needed increases in budgets for law enforcement, neighborhood policing, adult and juvenile crime prevention, substance abuse treatment and counseling, as substance abuse often leads to crime, and murder victims’ families’ support programs."

Six other states currently have pending legislation to abolish the death penalty. New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007

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Report: One in 100 Adults Is Incarcerated in the U.S.

March 4, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

One in 100 report cover

More than one in every 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, causing huge financial burdens on states, according to a recent report by Pew Center on the States.

In 2008, states collectively spent more than $49 billion on corrections, which is more than four times the money spent on corrections 20 years ago. Coupled with the economic downturn, the high cost of incarceration may force states to cut spending in other areas like education and health care.

The report also noted that the increase in incarceration rates is a result of policies that put more people – often low-income and minority low-level offenders – in prison, rather than a rise in crime.

"More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew's Public Safety Performance Project.

Faced with these rising costs, some states are experimenting with new ways to handle people who break the law. Kansas and Texas, for example, adopted community-based programs such as reporting centers, treatment facilities and electronic monitoring systems as a way to save money.

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New York to Reform Harsh Drug Sentencing Laws

March 4, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

New York is on the verge of abolishing harsh drug sentencing laws that have long been criticized for their disproportionate impact on low-income and minority people.

The laws, passed in the 1970s under former Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, require judges to deliver fixed sentences, often called "mandatory minimums," to people convicted of possession of even small amounts of illegal drugs.

Although New York has already repealed the harshest aspects of the laws, legislators aim to completely dismantle the laws by restoring judges' ability to give appropriate sentences to drug offenders. Bills in both the Senate and the Assembly will give judges the option to send drug offenders to substance-abuse treatment programs instead of prison and will also allow thousands of prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses to apply to have their sentences shortened.

Governor David A. Patterson expressed strong support for eliminating the laws in his January 7 State of the State address: "We still have to expand treatment services; we have to give judges the opportunity to put low level offenders into treatment, and we have to make sure that our prisons are housing the most egregious of our drug policy offenders."

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LCCR President Wade Henderson Discusses Criminal Justice Reform

March 3, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Larry Gold, Douglas Ganzler and Wade Henderson speaking on a panel

From left to right: Larry Gold, JCPA board member; Douglas F. Ganzler, Maryland attorney general; and Wade Henderson, LCCR president and CEO

Yesterday, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the LCCR, spoke at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs national conference about the need to reform the criminal justice system in three areas that disproportionately affect low-income and minority people: mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, racial profiling, and the incarceration of juveniles.

"For Americans to retain confidence in our criminal justice system, individuals must be treated fairly and equitably at every stage of the process, from the initial investigation of a crime by the police officer walking a beat to prosecution and punishment. Today, our criminal justice system strays far from that ideal as unequal treatment of minorities characterizes every stage of the process. There is much that needs to be done to make our criminal justice system one that works and works fairly for all," said Henderson.

Currently, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of White males and Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double the rate of White males. Approximately one in 17 African-American males and one in 45 Latino males (compared to one in 90 whites) will be incarcerated before the age of 18.

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Maryland Senate Begins Debate on Bill to Repeal the Death Penalty

March 3, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Today, the Maryland Senate voted to begin debate on a bill that will repeal the death penalty in the state.

Governor Martin O'Malley, a strong opponent of the death penalty, wrote the bill and had pushed for a vote in the Senate.

In November 2008, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that the state abolish the death penalty because it is costly and because of the "real possibility" that the state might execute innocent people. The commission found that the average case where the death penalty is sought costs $1.9 million more than a life imprisonment sentence. The commission's report also cited a racial, economic and geographical bias in the administration of the death penalty.

Last month, the Montana Senate passed a bill to abolish the death penalty and the New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole.  Five other states currently have pending legislation to abolish the death penalty.

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