Human Rights Watch: Criminal Justice in America, Part One

By Crystal Defatte


The group Human Rights Watch, established in 1978, is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization made up of roughly 400 staff members around the globe. Each year they publish more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries. Although they describe the U.S. as having  “a vibrant civil society and strong constitutional protections for many civil and political rights”, in 2015 Human Rights Watch found 15 areas of human rights abuses here in the United States. So how did we fare in 2016?


Harsh Sentencing

In 2015 they reported that the United States locks up 2.37 million people, the largest reported incarcerated population in the world. About 12 million people annually cycle through county jails. Today it is reported to be 2.2 million people in prison. This means that the U.S. has around 22% of the world’s prison population, despite making up less than 5% of the world’s population. While I couldn’t find statistics for this year’s jail population, I did find that combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2% of the population is under some form of correctional control.


The U.S.’s high prison population is a direct result of mandatory minimum sentencing, which leaves little room for a judge to factor in circumstances that may justify a more lenient sentence. Mandatory sentencing and increased punishment were enacted when the United States Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1951. The acts made a first-time cannabis possession offense a minimum of two to ten years with a fine up to $20,000; however, in 1970, the United States Congress repealed mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses. With the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress enacted different mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including marijuana. Drug offenses still make up the majority of applicable mandatory minimum sentences but they can now be applied to a multitude of other, non-drug-related offenses. The use of mandatory minimum sentencing has led to a 700% increase in U.S. prison incarceration rates.


Here at home, the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums supported the Iowa legislature in passing  HF 2064. This bill allows certain low-level drug offenders to become parole eligible after serving half of the mandatory minimum sentence currently required by law. The bill also makes some currently incarcerated drug offenders eligible for parole. The measure, approved 98-0 by the Iowa House of Representatives and 28-19 by the Iowa Senate, is expected to reduce sentences for hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders and is estimated to save more than $700,000 over the next fiscal year. The bill was signed into law by Governor Branstad on May 12, 2016.


Then there is the harshest penalty of all, the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of July of 2016 the U.S. had 2,905 inmates on death row. While this punishment is applied to only the most heinous of crimes, it is troubling to know that since 1973 there have been 156 cases of people being released from death row because of evidence of their innocence. It is not outside the realm of possibility that at least one of those 2,905 death row inmates could be innocent; in fact, the DPIC makes compelling arguments for the innocence of 13 inmates put to death since 1976 and lists death row inmates pardoned after their executions on their website.


Though we are one of the few countries in the Western World to still have the death penalty, its use has dramatically decreased since 1998 when there were 295 people sentenced to death. In 2015 there were only 49; 2016’s numbers are not available yet. Though most progressives agree with Human Rights Watch that this practice should be outlawed, the drastic and steady decline of death penalty sentences is a step in the right direction.


Racial Disparities in Sentencing


Human Rights Watch also cited the U.S. for racial disparities in sentencing. African Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, yet account for 42% of death row inmates as of July 2016. Hispanic rates are much more proportional with 18% of the population and 13% of the death row population. Rates for Caucasians are much less proportional, with 61% of the population and 42% of the death row population. 71.4% of the current prison population is either African American or Hispanic, despite only making up a combined 30% of the population at large. Unfortunately, this trend has only gotten worse. In 2008 African American and Hispanics made up 58% of the prison population.


These numbers are not surprising when you consider the racial disparities in criminal sentencing. African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). On Average, African American men receive sentences 20% longer than white men for the same crime.


One contributing factor could be racial bias from those directly involved in trials. Jurors with racial biases, whether conscious or subconscious, may be more likely to convict if the defendant comes from a racial background they have biases against. They may be more likely to find a defendant guilty of harsher degrees of charges than they would for the same case had the defendant been the same race as the juror. Judges with racial bias may impose harsher sentences if they have preconceived notions about the criminality of certain races. Justice cannot be blind to race if the people dispensing it are not.


While new figures show Iowa has made slight improvements in racial disparities in its jails and prisons, it still ranks among the worst in the United States. Iowa has the fourth-most number of black inmates per capita in the country. At 1 in 17, we have the third highest rate of black male incarceration. Iowa has the nation’s third-highest ratio of black to white inmates at 11 to 1, a small improvement from 2007 when Iowa was actually the worst in the nation at 13.6 to 1. According to a report by The Sentencing Project that came out this summer, only three out of every 100 Iowans is black, but one out of every four Iowa prisoners is black. That report shows Iowa has 2,349 black prisoners for every 100,000. That’s a 44 percent decrease from the 4,200 per 100,000 in the 2007 report. When asked for an explanation for the disparity in Iowa, Russell Lovell, a retired Drake University Law School professor who works with the Iowa and Nebraska branch of the NAACP said, “I think that the numbers indicate that it’s a systemic problem, that it’s not like there’s just one issue. You don’t get the rankings that Iowa has without having broad-based, systemic issues. I’m certainly confident that African-Americans in Iowa are not more crime-prone than they are in other states. I can’t buy that argument.” (Murphy)  It is troubling that these numbers show little improvement considering that in 2008 Iowa passed legislation that requires lawmakers to consider the impact of proposed sentencing laws on racial and ethnic groups. Requirements to conduct racial impact analyses can promote a more deliberative strategy development process that encourages the use of public and private resources in the community. (Sentencing Project) This brings us to another human rights abuse find…


Poverty and Criminal Justice


These resources are still often very limited in minority communities that are more likely to be low-income, which in turn means services crucial to crime prevention and rehabilitation, like educational and employment agencies as well as subsidized counseling and drug treatment programs, are often nonexistent or ineffective due to lack of funding.  A World Bank study said that crime rates and high rates of income inequality are positively correlated within countries and, particularly, between countries, and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling for other crime determinants. In other words, there is a strong enough correlation between lower incomes and crime rates to suggest that poverty is a contributing cause for criminal activity. According to The State of Working America, among racial and ethnic groups, African Americans had the highest poverty rate, 27.4 percent, followed by Hispanics at 26.6 percent and whites at 9.9 percent. Removing a parent from a home due to incarceration often leaves children in poverty, especially children of color, which in turn makes the child more likely to offend in adulthood. This serves to create, or at least contribute to, a cycle of multi-generational incarceration within minority communities. People in poverty are also more likely to be represented by public defenders, known to be overworked, who often push for plea deals to avoid the hassle of a trial. On the other hand, wealthier Americans, who are more likely to be white, are better able to afford a defense attorney and to take a case to trial.


Of course, the inequities that are caused by poverty found in the criminal justice system are not unique to minority communities. Poverty can not only lead to criminal behavior, it can result in the reincarceration of those who have not reoffended. Correctional facilities across the nation charge fees to their inmates for countless reasons. These fees can include daily charges to stay in the facility, booking fees, release fees, and medical co-payment fees. Some jails charge for toilet paper and clothing. Then there are fees for using the criminal justice system itself. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia allow fees for a public defender, and 44 states charge individuals for using probation services. Though many of these fees may seem relatively small – public defender fees range from about $50 to $200 – they add up quickly and a defendant can emerge from the system with thousands of dollars in debt. Approximately 80% of those who enter the criminal justice system cannot afford an attorney for their own defense, which suggests that they have little additional savings to pay back new debts. Often this means a person who has already paid their debt to society for the initial crime can be brought in on a warrant for failing to pay their fines and find themselves back in a jail cell in a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration.


Iowa Code 356.7 states:

“The county sheriff, or a municipality operating a temporary municipal holding facility or jail, may charge a prisoner who is eighteen years of age or older and who has been convicted of a criminal offense or sentenced for contempt of court for violation of a domestic abuse order for the actual administrative costs relating to the arrest and booking of that prisoner, for room and board provided to the prisoner while in the custody of the county sheriff or municipality, and for any medical aid provided to the prisoner under section 356.5…

As used in this section, “administrative costs relating to the arrest and booking of a prisoner” means those functions or automated functions that are performed to receive a prisoner into jail or a temporary holding facility including the following: a. Patting down and searching, booking, wristbanding, bathing, clothing, fingerprinting, photographing, and medical and dental screening. b. Document preparation, retrieval, updating, filing, and court scheduling. c. Warrant service and processing. d. Inventorying of a prisoner’s money and subsequent account creation. e. Inventorying and storage of a prisoner’s property and clothing. f. Management and supervision.”


According to the Iowa Judicial Branch website, “You cannot be jailed in Iowa for not paying court debt; however, a county attorney may file a contempt of court action for failure to pay court debt. Statutory penalties have been prescribed by the legislature to encourage individuals to pay court debt within 30 days after the date is assessed.  If court debt becomes delinquent, then an individual will be unable to register or renew their motor vehicle registration or driver’s license.  For any traffic or traffic related offense, if the person has not paid the court debt 30 days after it was assessed by a court order, the person’s driver’s license will be suspended by the Department of Transportation.  An individual’s driver’s license or motor vehicle registration may be suspended until the person enters into a payment plan.”


The revocation of one’s driver’s license or vehicle registration only exacerbates the problem, as it is especially difficult to maintain employment without a vehicle to get one to their place of employment. If unemployed it is unlikely the court debt can be paid, leaving people with the decision to either obey the law and leave themselves open to contempt of court charges, or break the law, drive without a license or registration, and risk additional fines for those offenses. It seems that in Iowa, as well as much of the rest of the country, incarceration has become a business and poverty a crime.


Coming Next Week


These are only three of the human rights abuses the U.S. had been accused of. We will continue our journey to find out if the U.S. fared any better in 2016 than in 2015 next week with “Human Rights Watch: Criminal Justice in America, Part 2”.




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