Human Rights Watch: Criminal Justice in America, Part Two

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?


Drug Reform



“The federal government has begun to address disproportionately long sentences for federal drug offenders. At the time of writing, President Barack Obama had commuted the sentences of 86 prisoners in 2015, 76 of them drug offenders. Yet more than 35,000 federal inmates remain in prison after petitioning for reconsideration of their drug sentences. In October, the Bureau of Prisons released more than 6,000 people who had been serving disproportionately long drug sentences; the releases resulted from a retroactive reduction of federal drug sentences approved by the US Sentencing Commission.” – Human Rights Watch


2016 was a record-breaking year. In just one day, December 19th, President Obama nearly doubled last year’s numbers with 153 commuted sentences and 78 pardons. This brought the total number of commuted sentences during his time in office to 1,176 (395 of them originally being life sentences) and 148 total pardons. The previous single-day record of 151 commutations was set by Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. Almost all of these cases were drug related charges. These acts of clemency are the result of President Obama’s desire to bring attention to what his administration described as over-sentencing in federal prisons. In 2014 he directed the Justice Department to prioritize petitions for commutations from nonviolent offenders who were serving longer sentences than they would receive today if they were convicted of the same crimes. (Bergengruen) While this is certainly good news to those who feel drug penalties in America are too harsh, it still barely puts a dent in the total number of inmates who have petitioned for reconsideration of their drug sentences.


In 2015, Iowa’s very own Senator Chuck Grassley (R) introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S.2123). This bill was introduced on October 1st of that year and would, among other things, lower the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for many drug offenses, including eliminating the possibility for life sentences to be imposed for drug-related crimes. The bill had bipartisan support with 20 Democratic and 16 Republican co-sponsors, but unfortunately never left the Senate judiciary Committee.


Police Reform

This citation refers to the disturbing number of unarmed African Americans killed in 2015, including such high profile cases as Freddy Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. In 2016 there were 1090 instances of police fatally shooting suspects (just over 24% of those killed were African American) down slightly from the 1,146 in 2015 (almost 27% of those killed were African American).


Iowa only had five people killed by police in 2015 and when ranked among all fifty states and Washington D.C., Iowa ended up 44/51 per capita when it came to suspect fatalities and 39/51 in the total number of fatalities. 2016 saw little improvement with another five suspects killed in Iowa, landing the state at 44/51 per capita and 40/51 in total.


One police shooting that garnered national attention was the case of Philando Castile, an African American male who was pulled over in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on July 6, 2016. A St. Anthony police officer patrolling Larpenteur Avenue radioed to a nearby squad that he planned to pull over the car and check the IDs of the driver and passenger, saying, “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose. I couldn’t get a good look at the passenger.” Castile was legally licensed to carry a firearm and, according to his fiancee Diamond Reynolds (who was in the vehicle at the time of the shooting,, along with her four-year-old daughter), he told the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, he was in legal possession of a firearm located in his pocket. Officer Yanez ordered Castile not to reach for anything but then asked for Castile’s license and vehicle registration. Yanez shot Castile seven times when Castile went to reach for the requested documents.


The day after the fatal shooting, the St. Anthony Police Department identified the officer who fired the fatal shots as Yanez. He and his partner Kauser were placed on paid administrative leave. Two days after the shooting, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called for a “prompt and thorough” investigation into the shooting and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension became the lead agency in charge of the ensuing investigation. The BCA collected several different videos, including the squad car video and video taken by Ms. Reynolds of the moments immediately following the shooting, as evidence. Seven weeks after receiving the BCA report, Choi announced that Yanez was being charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. This is certainly good news in a lot of people’s minds after hearing the facts of the case, but any celebration is premature, as the trend seems to be that police officers are rarely convicted when forced to stand trial for on duty shooting deaths. As a matter of fact, as of September of 2016, since 2005 there were only 77 police officers charged with murder or manslaughter and only 26 were convicted; 28 were acquitted and 23 still have cases pending. There were zero convictions of police officers involved in fatal shootings in 2015.


Besides the fact that Castile was upfront about the fact that he was legally carrying a firearm and was complying with the officer’s orders when shot, his death was made all the more well known because he was the third African American male to be killed in three days. The string of deaths began on the Fourth of July when Delrawn Small was fatally shot by an off-duty cop in Brooklyn after a road-rage incident quickly intensified. Small was found to be unarmed at the time of the shooting. Alton Sterling was killed on July 5th by Baton Rouge police officers responding to a call about an armed man. Video showing the 37-year-old Sterling pinned to the ground before he is shot by one of the two arresting officers went viral, inciting outrage on social media and sparking protests in the Louisiana capital.


The number of suspects killed at the hands of police in 2016, as well as the number of high-profile cases of unarmed African Americans being killed, shows such little improvement that it is almost certain that Human Rights watch will once again be citing the U.S. for a lack of police reform.


Coming Next Week


These are only two more 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 Three”.








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