Equality and Liberty

  • 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.

  • February 11, 2015

    by Paul Guequierre

    Look almost anywhere and you’ll see the progress the LGBT community has made in its march toward equality. To the casual observer, victory may look to be in arm’s reach. Eleven years ago, Massachusetts became the first state to usher in marriage equality and now, with the Supreme Court denying Alabama’s request for a stay of a lower court’s ruling finding the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional, marriage equality is the law of the land in 37 states and the District of Columbia. And on top of that, the Supreme Court has finally agreed to take a marriage case this term, and we should know the fate of marriage equality in a few short months and many indicators point to victory. To some, the fight looks close to being over. Except that it’s not. Let’s take a look at Kansas for an example.

    This week Kansas’s Republican governor turned the clock back decades on fairness. Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order stripping anti-discrimination protections for LGBT state employees that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had put in place nearly a decade ago. Saying LGBT people should not be considered a protected class unless the legislature designates them so, Brownback has reopened the door to harassment and discrimination in the state workforce.

    If you’re surprised, you’re not alone. Polling commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, found that a majority of Americans think discrimination protections for LGBT Americans are already federal law. The reality, however, is that  there is no federal law protecting gay and transgender Americans from discrimination in employment and only a handful of states have such protections. If that seems odd to you and you thought the fight for LGBT equality will be over this summer when the Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, think of this: in nearly half of the states a gay or lesbian couple will be able to obtain a marriage license and then be fired from their job for no other reason than being gay. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.    

  • February 11, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Most Americans are aware that black people in the South were frequently subjected to public executions by white mobs during the Reconstruction era, but the true extent of this practice was not known until very recently.  Yesterday, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents 3,959 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.  The report is significant not just because it found evidence of approximately 700 more lynchings than previously recorded, but also because it reveals the true nature of lynchings and their effect on the African American community and society as a whole – then and now.

    The report notes that lynchings were not merely public hangings, but rather involved severe forms of torture, including castration, dismemberment, flaying and burning.  In addition, lynchings were not typically spur-of-the-moment acts of vigilante justice, but were celebrated events – ceremonious spectacles often attended by the entire white community of a town, including prominent public officials, and written about in the town newspaper.  Those who participated in lynchings did not wear disguises or cover their faces, but no white participant was ever convicted of murder for engaging in the practice.

    Importantly, EJI’s report investigates the role that lynchings played in society during this time, finding that lynchings constituted a form of racial terror used to keep black people subjugated.  A lynching victim was typically accused of a crime – often of raping a white woman – or of a minor offense such as speaking improperly to a white person or wearing a military uniform in public.  Then, without due process, he (or sometimes she) was ritualistically and publicly murdered.  Because the accusations were usually obvious pretense and because white perpetrators were never punished for their actions, lynchings had a deep psychological impact on the black community and also created a culture in which black lives were viewed as unimportant and not valuable.

    EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said, “[t]he geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed.”

    Contact EJI for the full-length report or read the report summary here.

  • February 10, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether America is now a “post-racial” society.  The introduction of the first non-white family into the White House was accompanied by some enthusiastic declarations of victory over the scourge of racism.  Observers looked to the president and to other successful minorities and decided that yes, racism is indeed over.

    But focusing on the most successful elements of any demographic group proves little, for wealth has the ability to elevate and to insulate.  One area where this is most evident is in the American criminal justice system.  When navigating the justice system, the ability to hire top-notch legal counsel or to post a significant bond drastically affects the outcome of a case.  This is true for both white citizens and for citizens of color.

    Unfortunately, however, racial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color.  There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

    The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system.  From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white.

  • February 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson, Assistant Professor of Government, American University School of Public Affairs. Edelson is also author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror from the University of Wisconsin Press.

    The misstep Republicans took last month on legislation seeking to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy has exposed larger problems related to the party’s position on abortion.  The bill foundered when some House Republicans raised concerns about a provision that would create a “rape exception” to permit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but only for victims of rape who report the crime.  Republican House member Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he is “pro-life but . . . had concerns about the bill.”  Rep. Curbelo added that he believed the rape reporting requirement caused “a level of discomfort, especially with the females in our conference.”  Republican leaders in the House agreed with Curbelo and canceled a vote on the legislation, apparently based at least in part on concerns that Republican women in the House would vote as a bloc against the bill because of the wording of the rape reporting provision.

    This unexpected development highlights problems in terms of both logic and politics for Republicans when it comes to abortion and, more broadly, when it comes to women.  The Republican Party has taken a position that strongly suggests abortion is never justified, using language reminiscent of anti-abortion arguments that flatly describe abortion as murder.  The 2012 Republican Party platform declared that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” That language does not seem to leave room for any exceptions – whether they might be for the health of the pregnant woman or for rape.  Logically, it makes sense for the party to take this stance.  If Republicans believe abortion involves the taking of an innocent life – and elected Republicans frequently make clear that they believe precisely this – then it would not make sense for them to support abortion under any circumstances (other than if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk).

    The problem is that polling shows most Americans reject this position and believe women who are pregnant as the result of rape should be able to get an abortion.  Relatedly, in 2012 when Republican senatorial candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock tried to explain why they believed abortion was only permissible in cases of “legitimate rape” (Akin) or that perhaps it is never permissible because pregnancy resulting from rape is “something God intended” (Mourdock), they ended up costing their party otherwise very winnable Senate seats.

    Republicans, of course, remember 2012 very well and have no interest in reminding the rest of the country of the cringe-inducing debate over how best to define rape.  Sen. Lindsey Graham recently suggested that the party needs to “find a way out of this definitional problem with rape” (although, as Joan Walsh observes, Sen. Graham risks stepping in the same trap as Todd Akin simply by alluding to a “definitional” question regarding rape.)  The revival of the rape definition discussion (most recently prompting philosophical musings by a Utah lawmaker about the ability of unconscious wives to have consensual sex) raises a larger problem for Republicans: It seems they just don’t trust women