Nicole Austin-Hillery

  • October 7, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Though the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, the criminal justice system remains a significant stumbling block on the path to racial equality. Nicole Austin-Hillery, the Director and Counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C. office, explained that “we are still a country that has a lot of hidden fears based on race.” And it’s these fears that have contributed to the quadrupling of the prison population since the 1970s, policies that make reentry more difficult for prisoners, and police practices that disproportionately target people of color.

    In an interview conducted earlier this year, Austin-Hillery offered her views on the path towards eliminating racial profiling and bias in the U.S. criminal justice system. Her work with the Brennan Center often focuses on voting rights as well as racial and criminal justice reform, and experience makes her well-aware of the challenges on the road to reform.  As she discussed in the interview, changing demographics are creating a greater need to educate Americans about racial justice issues and reevaluate programs put in place after the September 11 attacks.

  • April 15, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel-Washington Office, The Brennan Center for Justice

    The right to vote is at the heart of our American Democracy. Political participation by citizens is the great equalizer – it is the one thing that allows all Americans, no matter how powerful or weak, to make decisions about who will lead and who will help to advance their interests and protect their families. On April 10, Congress took an important step towards ensuring that this crucial right becomes available to even more Americans. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the bi-cameral Democracy Restoration Act (DRA). This important legislation would restore the right to vote in federal elections to the previously incarcerated immediately after their incarceration period is complete. Doing so would enable these individuals to resume the right and responsibility inherent in our role as Americans – asserting our voice through the ballot box.

    The DRA was first introduced in 2009 by former Sen. Russell Feingold. Previously, the bill received strong support, but never quite enough to become a reality. This time, however, is different. There is an enthusiastic and bi-partisan movement underway to reform those parts of our criminal justice system that do not work.  We can see this at the national as well as the state level:  Congress is considering reforming the federal sentencing structure to make sentences fairer in an effort to help eliminate mass incarceration; the Department of Justice has instituted a "Smart on Crime" initiative that would result in better decision-making by prosecutors; and several states, most notably Kentucky, are considering legislation that would restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in its state prisons. Other states have also made significant changes to their laws to open up the franchise to the formerly incarcerated, most notably in Delaware, and Virginia – a state that had previously been cited as having one of the most draconian felon disfranchisement laws on the books. So the moment to finally restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, who have paid their debts for their crimes, is now.

    Unlike other attempts to restore voting rights, the DRA is the most comprehensive effort. Under the legislation, once an individual has completed his or her incarceration period, their right to vote in federal elections will be automatically restored.  Individuals will not be limited because of any ancillary issues related to their incarceration such as outstanding fees and fines or the fact that they have been released from prison but remain on probation. This is a significant feature of the DRA.