US President Barack Obama speaks as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world. (Photo credit:SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week, President Obama put a much-needed spotlight on the vicious cycle of mass incarceration. In the past three decades, the prison population in the U.S. has ballooned due to a number of factors that have created a system rife with discrimination and other abuses. And the burden falls disproportionately on low-income people and people of color.
The President made a historic visit on July 16 to a federal prison — the first sitting president to do so. His visit spotlighted the massive overcrowding problem — he was shown one 9-by-10-foot cell that sometimes holds three prisoners — that is the result of a broken criminal justice system.
At the local level, Americans are demonstrating a strong commitment to advancing human rights. In recent elections, voters legalized marriage equality in nine states and passed the DREAM Act to expand educational opportunities for undocumented residents in Maryland. In addition, legislators in four states abolished the death penalty. The message to the nation’s leaders seems to be this: human rights still matter, and the task of “perfecting our union” remains incomplete.
As President Obama prepares to give his second inaugural address, he should embrace an ambitious rights agenda: enhancing our security without trampling on human rights; implementing a foreign policy that hold friends and foes alike accountable for human rights violations; and ensuring human rights for all in the United States without discrimination.
Measured against international norms and his own aspirations, President Obama’s first term record on human rights merits an “incomplete.” While he made the bold move of issuing an executive order to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, he has yet to fulfill that promise. The U.S. government’s reliance on lethal drone strikes is growing steadily, but the administration has provided no clear legal justification for the program. Congress has abrogated its responsibility to exercise meaningful oversight of this most ubiquitous element of the “global war on terror,” a paradigm which is in and of itself problematic. Although President Obama has on occasion stood up for human rights defenders abroad — in China, Iran, Russia and Libya — his administration has often muted criticism when it comes to U.S. allies, in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.
By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.
The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution. In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.
Marcus Robinson will not be executed but instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination.
Our justice system has a racial bias problem, both in the way it treats suspects, and the way it treats victims.
The cases of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin underscore this. If the races were reversed would Troy Davis’ execution have been pursued so relentlessly, would he even have received a death sentence, would police have been so quick to ignore other potential suspects?
And, had the races been reversed, wouldn’t the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing have been … different?
But knowing there is racial bias and doing something about it are two different things. In North Carolina, something is being done.
The death penalty is a difficult issue for just about any politician. Most prefer to avoid it as much as possible. But the time may soon come when President Obama will have to take a stand on this question. In a recent article on Politico.com, Josh Gerstein outlines the challenges that President Obama may face in the near future regarding the federal death penalty, as several cases inch a little closer to crossing his desk. Obama has previously stated that he supports the death penalty in cases that involve “heinous” crimes, but has not made it clear exactly where he draws the lines between which crimes are heinous and which are not. Attorney General Eric Holder has likewise given few clues about his specific stance on this issue. He has stated that he personally opposes capital punishment, but he has also authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in four cases since he has taken office.
Compared to some states, the federal death penalty has been used relatively sparingly, and executions at the federal level have been halted for several years due to challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection. In April, 2008 the Court ruled that lethal injection is constitutional, clearing the way for some pending executions to go forward. There are several cases making their way through the federal appeals process now, including the cases of 6 African Americans from the Washington area all of whom are nearing the end of their appeals.
That all six of the inmates involved in these cases are African-American is sadly symbolic of the racial disparities inherent in the federal death penalty. Currently there are 57 prisoners on federal death row, 35 of which are people of color, and 28 of which are African-American. According to a recent survey of the Federal Death Penalty System, during the years 1995-2000 U.S. Attorneys recommended that the death penalty be sought in 44.3% of cases involving a black defendant, but only 26.2% of cases involving a white defendant. Also, in a 2007 report titled The Persistant Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty the ACLU found that the death penalty is reduced to life sentences during plea bargaining almost twice as often for white defendants as for black defendants.
These statistics not only reflect serious racial bias on their own, but they are also disproportionate to the rest of the nation: in 2003 the United States Government, and the U.S. military, had higher percentages of non-white prisoners on their death rows (77% and 86% respectively) than any single state except Colorado. At the beginning of this year, those figures still stood at 60% and 78%, way out of proportion with the population as a whole.
Action for Human Rights. Hope for Humanity.