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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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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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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