Finding Justice within America’s Criminal Justice System
From its inception to the era of Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has in many ways served as a necessary catalyst for criminal justice reform in the United States. Amidst moments in America’s history of turmoil and civil unrest, the CBC emerged to restore hope to the black community while demanding a more just criminal justice system for all. Years before their official formation, African-American members of Congress often vocalized their keen support of or opposition to some of the country’s most significant pieces of criminal justice legislation. They recognized the national implications of both state and federal legislation, and as a collective body, have continued to champion efforts to eliminate disparities underscored by race and class.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Committee on the District of Columbia released a report in 1963, outlining the significant increase of crime in the District. Shortly thereafter, the DC Anti-Crime Bill was introduced to “ameliorat[e] crime conditions and mak[e] the streets safe” for D.C.’s citizens, government workers and visitors. African-American congressional members were not normally outspoken when it came to most local and state matters, but this bill, according to Rep. John Conyers (MI), had significant national implications. The bill in its initial form would, among other things, enforce more stringent policies including mandatory minimum for crimes committed within the District, and give more authority to police within the local jurisdiction.
In light of the increasing incidents of police brutality against blacks in place such as Selma, Alabama, Rep. Conyers (MI) feared that such policies could be especially harmful to the black community. Between 1963 and 1967, he cautioned legislators to be “particularly careful and responsible about authorizing police procedures in local jurisdictions for which we have special responsibility- the District of Columbia.” If this legislation were adopted, he believed “it would undoubtedly serve as a precedent and pattern for the enactment of similar legislation by State and municipal legislative bodies.” So when the “Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Assistance Act of 1967,” aka the “Omnibus Crime Bill” was introduced, which outlined similar directives to give State and local governments more authority over its police procedures, Conyers voted against the bills, both in 1967 and 1968.
If the focus in the late 1960s could be summed up through crime legislation, the early 1970s signaled a focus on prison reform in the criminal justice system. When the prison riots began in 1971, the first one at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, the CBC was moved to act. On September 9, 1971, partly in response to the killing of an African-American prisoner at the San Quentin prison in California, Attica inmates took control of half the prison, taking 38 prison guards hostage. They declared, “We are men. We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such.” By the end of the four-day showdown, 39 people were dead, including correctional officers, civil employees, and prisoners. Prisoners demanded better treatment, and soon after, Attica became the catalyst for other prison riots across the country, including those at Auburn State (NY), Tennessee State (TN), and New Orleans Prisons (LA).
Not satisfied with sitting on the sidelines, CBC members demanded justice and between 1971 and 1975 introduced and collectively supported numerous pieces of legislation that would establish minimum standards of treatment for prisoners, improve the correctional facilities, and increase appropriations to these facilities. CBC members Augustus Hawkins (CA), John Conyers (MI), Ronald Dellums (CA), William L, Clay, Sr. (MO), Shirley Chisholm (NY), Ralph Metcalfe (IL), Parren Mitchell (MD), and Charles Rangel (NY) supported some, if not all, of these pieces of legislation. Of these members, Reps. Dellums and Rangel were especially vocal during this time. Dellums focused much of his legislative agenda during the 1970s almost exclusively on prison reform, introducing bills against prisoner mistreatment, but also through remarks and written articles, like the one he wrote in the San Francisco Post, titled, “Behind the Prison Walls.” In addition to supporting all of the aforementioned legislation, Rep. Rangel also offered formal remarks and participated in television interviews.
Prison reform was certainly a significant issue within the criminal justice system of the 1970s, but just as important was the war on drugs. Within the same year of the Attica Prison Riot, President Nixon’s declaration on June 17, 1971 of the “War on Drugs” marked another era in Criminal Justice reform in which the use and/or trafficking of drugs became the center of conversations on social policies and crime. In the decade that followed, additional policies and campaigns emerged, including the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 passed by President Reagan, as well as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign during her husband’s presidency. On its face, these were policies intended to reduce illegal drug trade, use, and operation, but members of the CBC also realized its potential to disproportionately criminalize people of color. Rep. George Crockett, Jr. (MI) was especially vocal on this issue, and according to several newspapers, was noted as the first member of Congress to advocate decriminalization of drugs. Rep. Rangel (NY), who at the time was Chair of the Select Committee on Narcotics, also participated in discussions of drug policy reform. CBC members also introduced and supported legislation that prohibited assistance to foreign countries that failed to act to prevent entry of drugs into the U.S. As the heroin and crack epidemic grew in urban communities across the U.S., more CBC members introduced legislation that sought the development of programs and research to address the rapidly increasing rates of narcotic addiction.
Debates surrounding the War on Drugs continued in the 1990s with vigilance, this time in ensuring equality in drug policy from CBC members like Reps. Maxine Walters (CA) and Charles Rangel (NY). This issue, however, would only be one of several that caught people’s attention within the decade. The brutal beating of Rodney King on March 3, 1991 incensed Black people across the country, including members of the CBC. A videotape captured the beating of Rodney King, an African-American motorist by at least four non-black police officers after a car chase. Rep. Conyers (MI) referred to the incident as “a modern day lynching” due to the severity of the Mr. King’s beating, which seemed to have been motivated largely by the fact that he was black. In the years immediately following, members of the CBC mobilized through the creation of the Task Force on Police Brutality and Misconduct, holding hearings across the country to address this issue.
The 21st century represented a number of challenges in the criminal justice arena, but the area that seemed to be of most concern was sentencing reform, namely as it relates to crack v. cocaine sentencing disparities. At the forefront of this legislative debate has been the CBC, most notably members like Reps. Bobby Scott (VA), James Clyburn (SC), Maxine Waters (CA) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX), who either introduced or ardently supported sentencing reform legislation. The recent passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (VA), presented further gains in sentencing reform, by reducing the sentencing disparity between federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine from a ratio of 100:1 to 18:1. The role of the CBC in shaping criminal justice reform has been varied, they remain as crucial and relevant to shaping the criminal justice conversation now as they did years ago on the eve of their official formation.