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 21, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
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.
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.
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.
April 22, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
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.
April 15, 2009 - Posted by Tyler Lewis
Two reports released this week address civil rights issues in the criminal justice system:
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
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."
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
March 4, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
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.
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."
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.