May 19, 2000


Commentary

Justice on Trial

By U.S. Representative John Lewis
and Wade Henderson

In the almost half century since a tired seamstress name Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, the United States has made significant progress toward the objective of ensuring equal treatment under law for all citizens. The right to vote and right to be free from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations are enshrined in statute. The number of minorities in positions of authority in both public and private life continues to grow. America's minorities now enjoy greater economic and educational opportunities than at any time in our history. While it certainly cannot be said that the United States has achieved complete equality in these areas, we continue to make slow but steady progress on the path toward that goal.

But in one critical arena - criminal justice - racial inequality is growing, not receding. Our criminal laws, although facially neutral, are enforced in a manner that is massively and pervasively biased. The injustices of the criminal justice system threaten to render irrelevant fifty years of hard-fought civil rights progress.

According to a report issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund entitled "Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System" the United States has two separate, unequal standards of justice for Whites and minorities.

The system by which lawbreakers are apprehended and punished is one of the pillars of any democracy. But for that system to remain viable, the public must be confident that at every stage of the process - from the initial investigation of a crime by the policeman walking his beat to the prosecution and punishment of that crime by prosecutors and judges - individuals in like circumstances are treated equally and fairly, consistent with the Constitution's guarantees of equal treatment under the law.

Today, our criminal justice system strays too far from this ideal. Unequal treatment of minorities characterizes every stage of the process. Black and Hispanic Americans, and other minority groups as well, are victimized by disproportionate targeting and unfair treatment by police and other front-line law enforcement officials; by racially skewed charging and plea bargaining decisions of prosecutors; by discriminatory sentencing practices; and by the failure of judges, elected officials and other criminal justice policy makers to redress the inequities that become more glaring every day.

Racial disparities affect both innocent and guilty minority citizens, all of whom receive unequal treatment at the hands of the criminal justice process as compared to their similarly situated white counterparts. And the belief that such unequal treatment is commonplace is not exclusively held by minority groups. It is shared by all Americas, a fact that reveals the breadth of this crisis of confidence.

Among the inequality trends cited in the study are:

• Although African Americans and Whites have approximately the same rate of drug use, African Americans constitute more than a third of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses.

• Hispanics represent the fastest growing group being imprisoned. Between 1985 and 1995, rates have more than doubled. And, the Asian American population in federal prisons has quadrupled in the past twenty years.

• Federal prison sentences overall, after implementation of the new federal sentencing guidelines, are almost fifty percent longer for American Americans than Whites.

We are not suggesting that we establish laws that "take it easy" on minorities. Rather, there should not be a different level of justice for people who are not white. The treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system is the most profound civil rights crisis facing America in the new century. It undermines the progress we have made over the past five decades in ensuring equal treatment under the law, and calls into doubt our national faith in the rule of law.

The report should make it clear to law enforcement, the court system and to elected officials that we need to re-examine the way we pursue criminal justice in this country.

Americans should no longer have to risk their constitutional rights merely for "appearing in court while black" or "being interrogated by a police officer while Hispanic".

Mr. Lewis is a member of Congress from Georgia and was an aide to the late Dr. Martin Luther King while Mr. Henderson is Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

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