Human Rights Watch Details Ongoing U.S. Criminal Justice Abuses

Human Rights Watch Details Ongoing U.S. Criminal Justice Abuses

Despite recent progress toward criminal justice reform, the United States continues to pursue policies that encourage mass incarceration and fail to rehabilitate offenders, according to a Human Rights Watch report presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this year.

The international watchdog organization also detailed a spectrum of overreach and misconduct in the criminal justice system, including adult sentences for juvenile offenders and disproportionate sentencing based on race.

The U.S. juvenile detention system often tries young people as adults and metes out sentences that outweigh the crimes. The number of youth in prison has dropped by 50 percent since its peak in 2000, but over 5,000 juveniles remain incarcerated in adult jails and prisons nationwide.

Human Rights Watch raised specific concerns about disproportionate sentencing and racial profiling. While African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, African Americans are imprisoned on drug charges at six times the rate of white users.

Surprisingly, the Trump administration has taken some steps toward effective criminal justice reforms; President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker said in statement that the bill would help “correct the ills of the failed War on Drugs.” The law includes provisions that increase good-time credits, move offenders closer to their homes, and expand skill-building programs.

But Human Rights Watch and other criminal justice advocacy groups vehemently opposed the measure, and last spring the group urged the House Judiciary Committee to vote no. Jasmine Tyler, Human Rights Watch’s U.S. advocacy director, explained that most of the text is “extremely problematic,” with the exception of few measures like retroactivity for equalizing powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentences.

Attorney General William Barr could also pose a threat to reform, the group says. Barr has a history of supporting initiatives, from harsher sentencing for crack cocaine to co-signing a report in favor of increasing incarceration in the 1990s, that are at odds with the First Step Act as well as broader criminal justice reform efforts.

Tyler also criticized the use of a “risk assessment based on a likely racist system” to place people into re-entry programs that “likely don’t exist.” According to Tyler, the law does not address the limited services and abysmal halfway-house conditions that many people returning to their communities face. As Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the committee, passing “back-end reform” without including “front-end reform” won’t meaningfully improve the federal system.