Discover the history of CBC activism on criminal justice issues including police brutality, drug trafficking, sentencing and prison reform.
A commitment that began on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, improving America’s criminal justice system has always been a priority of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Whether it was combating police brutality of the 1960s, tainted by the painful memories of fire hoses and attack dogs, or racial profiling of the present, as memorialized by the events surrounding the killing of young Trayvon Martin in Florida, the CBC has been a voice for African-American people, but most importantly, for justice. It was not always easy, but even at times when their views were in the minority, the CBC remained unwavering in their demand for justice within the criminal justice system.
For the over 40 years that the CBC has been in existence, their demand for justice within the criminal justice system has gone through many stages, and taken various forms. In the initial stages, the priority of the CBC was to stop incidents of police brutality in their communities. The Civil Rights Movement was as intense a period of hope as it was of violence. Those who decided to stand up for freedom often did so at the expense of their safety and physical well-being. When Rep. John Conyers (MI) opposed the D.C. Crime Bill in the early 1960s, he did so with that reality in mind. In the years immediately following, it would be the issue of prison reform that would take center stage, as the Attica prison tragedy would serve as a catalyst for a mass prison reform movement in the 1970s. By the 1980s, effects of widespread drug trafficking and addiction had begun to take its toll on communities across America, but no community was as devastated by this reality as was the African-American community. Rep. Charles Rangel (NY) and other CBC members vowed to tackle this problem through rehabilitative programming and strategies to effectively counter the policies associated with the “War on Drugs.”
The CBC tackled a range of other criminal justice-related issues in years following, from fair sentencing issues like the crack v. powder cocaine sentencing disparity, juvenile justice matters, fair treatment of women in prison, to disproportionate issuances of capital punishment to black men, as in the Troy Davis case. Whether through legislative participation or public advocacy, the work of the CBC has remained instrumental in not only shaping criminal justice reform, but also in heightening the consciousness of mainstream America. Significant progress has been made in ensuring justice for all within the criminal justice system, but there is still much left to be done.