Criminal Justice

  • February 18, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ryan P. Haygood, Deputy Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    The history-making events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, ultimately freed the vote for millions of Black voters.  But 50 years later, as we commemorate the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are also reminded that more than two million Black people continue to be denied the right to vote by one of the vestiges of American slavery.

    Black voter registration in Selma in 1965 was made virtually impossible by Alabama’s relentless efforts to block the Black vote, which included requiring Blacks to interpret entire sections of Alabama’s constitution, an impossible feat for even the most learned.  On one occasion, even a Black man who had earned a Ph.D. was unable to pass Alabama’s literacy test.

    On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams led almost 600 unarmed men, women and children in a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation their desire as Black people to participate in the political process.

    As they crossed the highest part of the bridge, the marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers, who ridiculed, tear-gassed, clubbed, spat on, whipped and trampled them with their horses.  In the end, Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick, and 17 other marchers were hospitalized.

    In direct response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson five months later signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.  Considered by many to be the greatest victory of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers, such as literacy tests, that had long kept Blacks from voting.

    Despite the promise of increased political participation by Black people and other people of color created by the Voting Rights Act, which twice led to the election of a Black president, its full potential has not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society: Americans with criminal convictions.

    Today, more than 5 million Americans are locked out of the political process by state felon disfranchisement laws that disqualify people with felony convictions from voting.

    The historical record reveals that to prevent newly freed Blacks from voting after the Civil War, many state legislatures in the North and South tailored their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those offenses committed mostly by Black people.

  • February 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project; author of Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies and Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States (co-authored with Marc Mauer).

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    Between 2007 and 2009, black men received federal sentences that were 14 percent longer than those for white men with similar arrest offenses, criminal histories and other prior characteristics.  In their Yale Law Journal article, Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi show that prosecutors – not judges – have been the “dominant procedural sources of disparity.”  This is because prosecutors were twice as likely to charge black defendants with offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences than otherwise-similar whites.  Similar patterns emerge at the state level.  Mandatory minimum sentences have therefore not eliminated sentencing disparities by standardizing judicial decisions as some had hoped.  Instead, mandatory minimums have merely transferred power from judges to prosecutors.

    In my recent report with The Sentencing Project, I outline the major sources of racial disparity in criminal justice outcomes and highlight recent initiatives for targeting these inequities.  Racially biased use of discretion – not just among prosecutors, but also police officers, judges and potentially even public defenders – is just one source of racial disparity in sentencing.

    A second cause is ostensibly race-neutral policies and laws that have a disparate racial impact. For example, drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing enhancements for people caught selling drugs near school zones.  The expansive geographic range of these zones coupled with high urban density has disproportionately affected residents of urban areas, and particularly those in high-poverty areas – who are largely people of color. A study in New Jersey found that 96% of persons subject to these enhancements in that state were African American or Latino. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of drug-free school zone law.

  • February 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by William Yeomans, Fellow in Law and Government, American University Washington College of Law; Faculty Advisor to the Washington College of Law ACS Student Chapter

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    The recent killings by police officers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the failure of grand juries to charge the responsible officers under state law, once again have elevated the relationship between minority communities and the police forces that serve them onto the national stage.  The issue has periodically gained attention following dramatic incidents, such as the beating of Rodney King in 1991, the killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999 and the multiple killings on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  These incidents are invariably racially charged, and they invariably cause victims, families and communities seeking a remedy for racial injustice to turn to the federal government to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges.

    Yet, unknown to most people – including confused “experts” rolled out by the media – the federal criminal law pursuant to which these cases are prosecuted, 18 U.S.C. 242, does not require proof of racial intent as an element of the crime.  Indeed, the vaguely worded statute subjects to criminal liability anyone who “under color of any law . . . willfully subjects any person . . . to the deprivation of any rights . . . secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . .”  The statute was originally enacted in 1866, narrowed in 1909, and has since been revisited only to enhance its penalties.  Congress’s failure to update the statute means that a law that was enacted 149 years ago for application in a very different society to very different circumstances – and which has subsequently been largely rewritten through judicial interpretation – is the principal federal tool for prosecuting police officers.

    Section 242 was originally enacted as a buffer between freed slaves and southern states, but along with most of Reconstruction’s civil rights protections, it fell into disuse through restrictive judicial interpretations and a failure of political will.  Restrictive readings of “color of law” and the scope of constitutional rights, and the Supreme Court’s attempt to save the statute from unconstitutional vagueness by requiring proof of specific intent, undermined the statute.  Under the Court’s interpretation, juries must find that the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct that violated a clearly established federal right even though he need not have been aware of the legal definition of the right.  The mental jujitsu required to apply the standard has befuddled juries ever since and made the Department of Justice cautious in enforcing the statute.

    The statute also requires the identification of a federal right.  The Court has held that a shooting or beating while a suspect is being taken into custody is a seizure which, pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, must be reasonable.  Reasonableness requires an objective calculation of what a reasonable officer would do, but it must take into account all of the pressures, uncertainties and confusion that confronted the defendant officer.  Therefore, on one hand the standard is objective, but its application becomes subjective when taking into account the officer’s perceptions. 

  • February 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.


    “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

    “I can’t breathe.”

    “Black lives matter.”

    These are the now ubiquitous chants, hashtags and mantras that stand as succinct and eloquent expressions of the current crisis in race and criminal justice.  They also effectively capture the struggle for racial justice throughout our nation’s history and embody a call to action.  Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” reminds us that while some have the capacity to devalue and destroy life, a gesture of surrender can also become a symbol of strength.

    “I can’t breathe” speaks to the poignant frailty of human life and the way in which violence intended to silence can instead embolden the oppressed.  And “black lives matter” is a profound reminder of the important work that remains to be done in order to achieve true racial justice in our country.

    “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

    On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Witnesses stated that Mr. Brown’s hands were up in surrender before he was killed.  Although this testimony later faced scrutiny and contradiction, the indication that a law enforcement officer responded to non-violence with lethal force struck a dangerously tender nerve that ignited a wave of protests across the country.  The public skepticism – and anger – about the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black people was compounded by the Missouri grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer that shot and killed Mr. Brown.

    This image of a White police officer using lethal force against a Black man in surrender is powerfully evocative of past events.  Almost 50 years ago – on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965 – state troopers in Selma, Alabama, violently assaulted 600 unarmed men, women and children who peacefully attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to draw national attention to their fight to participate in the political process.  Law enforcement officers clubbed, spat-on, whipped and trampled with horses the protesters who had stopped to pray.

    Then, as now, this image of police answering non-violence with violence shocked and horrified the nation.  In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress about the importance of voting rights; the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. secured an order allowing the march to proceed safely; and the Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965.

    Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” speaks to not just the police brutality currently plaguing Black communities, but also the power of collective, strategic organizing and legal action.

  • February 11, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jennifer Carreon, M.S.C.J., Policy Researcher, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Sarah Bryer, National Juvenile Justice Network

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.


    In the past decade, there has been a lot of good news in the field of juvenile justice reform – not least the series of four landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that, beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, recognized the developmental differences that separate children and teens from adults, including their lessened culpability and enormous capacity for change.  At the same time, most states have significantly cut the number of youth they incarcerate.  Between 2001 and 2011, the number of youth confined in the U.S. declined by 41 percent.

    What’s more, new data from Texas shows that incarcerating fewer youth and serving more of them in the community makes communities safer.  Since 2007, the state has closed nine youth prisons, even as the juvenile arrest rate fell to a 30-year low.  In a report released at the end of January, the Council of State Government’s (CSG) Justice Center analyzed 1.3 million individual case records spanning eight years and assembled from three state agencies.  CSG found that youth who were incarcerated were 21% more likely to recidivate than youth handled locally.

    But it’s not time to break out the champagne yet: In spite of a decade of reform, racial disparities are worse than ever.  A new national study looking at racial and ethnic disparities between 1980 and 2000 found that Black and Hispanic boys were far more likely to be sent to a secure facility than white boys for similar behavior.  In the U.S. in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), Black youth were incarcerated five times as often as White youth; Latino youth twice as often; Native American youth three times as often.  If we think of the juvenile justice system as a maze with pathways in and out, it’s clear that youth of color have far more pathways into the maze than White youth do, and they’re lucky to find a pathway out.

    Even in states where significant juvenile justice reforms have been undertaken, the ratio of youth of color receiving dispositions in juvenile court has gotten worse, not better.  In Texas – where the CSG report provides powerful evidence that youth justice reform has produced promising results – one sees disproportionate numbers of youth of color at every decision point in the system, and with Black youth in particular, who appear at almost twice the rate one would expect compared to their numbers in the general population.