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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Wade Henderson Urges Congress to Fix Disparate Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing in Politico

July 23, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Wade Henderson

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.

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Supreme Court Delays Decision on Hearing Troy Davis Case

July 10, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Black men holding up pictures of Troy Davis face

"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.

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Federal Monitoring of Police Departments Protects People’s Rights

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.


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New Report Finds That Racial Profiling Is Pervasive

July 7, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

Rep. John Conyers speaking at a podium

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. 

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Legal Services Corp. Must Be Free to Help Low-Income People

June 25, 2009 - Posted by Tyler Lewis

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) is calling for the Senate to lift restrictions that make it harder for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide legal services to low-income people.

The LSC is a non-profit corporation created by Congress in 1974 to ensure equal access to justice for millions of Americans who need but cannot pay for a lawyer. The LSC is primarily funded by Congress and gives grants to free legal aid organizations around the country that help low-income Americans with legal matters. 

In a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, LCCR said: "In these times of economic distress, when more and more people require help in battling foreclosure and eviction, securing unemployment and benefits, and dealing with medical and insurance matters, the Senate must assist those most vulnerable by funding the LSC sufficiently and by lifting no-cost restrictions."

Since the 1990s, the LSC has suffered budget cuts and a number of restrictions – including those preventing legal aid lawyers from collecting attorneys' fees and LSC clients from joining class action lawsuits – which have forced it to turn away nearly a million cases a year.  The House passed a budget recently that included significant increases in funding and removed the restriction on the collection of attorneys' fees, but left in place many of the other restrictions.  The Senate is expected to consider the funding bill for the LSC this week.

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Death Row Inmate Troy Davis Denied Opportunity to Prove Innocence

June 3, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

A woman speaks at a podium in front of a large sign reading Stand Firm for Justice.

Troy Davis' sister Martina Correia speaks at Action Day for Troy Davis on October 26, 2008, in Atlanta, Ga. Photo Credit: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Congressional leaders and civil rights groups are calling for intervention in the case of Troy Davis, who currently sits on death row in Georgia for a murder he may not have committed.

On May 22, 24 members of Congress sent a letter to Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, requesting federal action on Davis' behalf. Other groups such as Amnesty International and the NAACP have launched petitions that will be submitted to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, as well as other government officials, demanding justice.

In 1991, Troy Davis was found guilty of the murder of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Ga., based solely on witness 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.

In light of this new evidence, many people think that Davis deserves a new trial.

Despite the withdrawn testimonies and the absence of physical evidence to tie Davis to the crime, the courts have continuously denied his petitions for a new trial. On April 16, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Davis a hearing to present new evidence, writing, "Davis has not presented us with a showing of innocence so compelling that we would be obligated to act today."

Troy Davis is now petitioning the Supreme Court to send his case back to a federal district court to hear new evidence supporting his innocence. The petition says that going forward with Davis' execution without a "full and fair hearing in which he could make a truly persuasive demonstration that he is actually innocent" would be unconstitutional.

Current law makes it difficult for a death row inmate to appeal his or her case to the higher courts. This has spurred civil rights leaders to appeal for government intervention. "An innocent man may be executed." says Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, in a statement to the public. "You and I must work together to reform our country's criminal justice system, and we must start by saving the life of one man."

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Report Calls Upon Congress to Provide Fairer Treatment for Latino Youth in Justice System

May 21, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

picture of a young Latino boy

A new report released by the National Council of La Raza and the Campaign for Youth Justice yesterday finds that the U.S. justice system incarcerates more Latino youth than white youth and treats them more harshly for similar offenses.

The justice system incarcerates nearly 18,000 Latino youth each day and holds nearly one in four in an adult jail or prison. The report shows that holding Latino youth in adult facilities subjects them to significant dangers, such as suicide and rape, and causes severe emotional damage due to unjust treatment and the lack of therapeutic care.

The report calls on Congress to provide funds for community-based programs and alternative treatments to incarceration that effectively promote educational and emotional development among Latino youth and to reauthorize and update the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act this year to reduce racial disparities in the justice system and ban youth from being housed in adult jails.  It also recommends that state and local policymakers stop housing Latino youth in adult jails and transfer resources from incarceration to effective, community-based programs.

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Youth PROMISE Act Will Help Communities Fight Youth Crime

May 14, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

A study last December from Northeastern University shows that youth crime may be rising, particularly among African-American youth, and that Congress has to do more to prevent kids and teens from becoming involved in violent crime and gang activity.

In February, both Democrats and Republicans, led by Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., introduced the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The Youth PROMISE Act provides funds to communities with the highest rates of crime and gang activity to each form a council of local leaders, such as representatives from law enforcement,  schools, and social service organizations, that will develop a plan for preventing young people in their community from joining gangs or engaging in criminal activity.

"I have long believed that the best way to reduce violence in this country is through prevention, and the Youth PROMISE Act does just that.  We must engage youth in positive ways through education, after school programs, sports, as well as family and community support to keep kids away from the dangers of gangs and other violent activities," said Rep. Mike Castle, R. Del., when the bill was introduced.

In this video submitted to 99Problems.org, a site where people can upload video testimonials about problems facing their communities, Joe Hill of Philadelphia explains why he sees a need for the Youth PROMISE Act in his community.

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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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