Although the contributions of the CBC in shaping criminal justice in America were often complemented by their efforts outside the walls of Congress, it was through legislation that they memorialized their legacy. The legislation they introduced on prison reform, capital punishment, racial profiling, juvenile justice, fair sentencing, and ex-offender rights especially reflected the role of the CBC in ensuring equal treatment of all people under the law. As a collective body, their legislative push began immediately following the series of prison riots across the country, catalyzed by the Attica prison riot in New York in 1971.
Reps. Ronald Dellums (CA) and John Conyers (MI) sustained the effort through their introduction of numerous pieces of legislation that demanded better treatment of American prisoners, but the remainder of the CBC’s founding members, Reps. Augustus Hawkins (CA), Louis Stokes (OH), Shirley Chisholm (NY), Parren Mitchell (MD), Charles Rangel (NY), and Walter Fauntroy (DC) supported the effort. Together, between 1971 and 1973, they introduced and co-sponsored legislation, which sought to establish minimum standards for treatment of prisoners, create a Commission on Penal Reform, a Criminal Justice Reform Administration, and increase assistance to correctional programs, among other things. For several years, beginning in 1972 until 1979, Rep. Dellums (CA) introduced and subsequently re-introduced the Omnibus Penal Reform Act in an effort to offer a comprehensive approach to prison reform. While none of these bills ever became law, it set a tone for the conversations in Congress and signaled to rest of the Congress the CBC’s commitment to this issue. It also opened the door for later pieces of legislation that would focus on prison reform, but in other areas like women’s rights in prison. This issue was especially important to many women of the CBC, from Reps. Yvonne Braithwaite Burke (CA), Shirley Chisholm (NY), and Barbara Jordan (TX) of the earlier years, to those in most recent history, like Rep. Maxine Waters (CA). Rep. Waters’ introduction of The Protection of Women in Prison Act (H.R. 3920) was one of several pieces of legislation requiring improved conditions and facilities for women.
On the issue of Death Penalty legislation, the CBC has been vocal in addressing this matter for many years. In 1989, Rep. Conyers (MI) introduced the Racial Justice Act, which sought to reduce the racially disproportionate pattern of death penalty sentences by giving the person to whom the sentenced was rendered the opportunity to prove through statistical evidence that such a sentence established a “racially disproportionate pattern.” This legislation was reintroduced several times in Congress, including in 1994, but did not pass the Committee stages. However, it shed light on the many cases of racially disproportionate sentencing, which would later be revisited by the CBC, but in various other forms.
One such form was through a series of legislation on Racial Profiling in the early 2000s. Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (DC) was especially vocal on this issue, introducing both the Racial Profiling Prohibition Act of 2001, and later in 2004, a charge for a Racial Profiling Ban. Her focus was primarily based on the disproportionate numbers of vehicles being stopped by police on the basis of race. Rep. Conyers (MI) introduced a similar piece of legislation called the End Racial Profiling Act, which expanded the scope of racial profiling of police officers beyond traffic stops, but also in “frisks, questioning searches, and seizures.” First introduced in 2001, Rep. Conyers has continued to re-introduce this legislation over the years, including most recently in 2010. It has also to-date received 58 sponsors.
On matters related to juvenile justice, Rep. Bobby Scott has been a major proponent in recent history, but the commitment of African-American member of Congress to the issue can be traced back to as early as the 1960s. In 1967, for example, Rep. Augustus “Gus” Hawkins introduced a bill to address juvenile delinquency to assist in the prevention, treatment, and control of the problem. In 1969, Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to establish the Institute for Continuing Studies in Juvenile Justice. By the 1970s, other founding members of the CBC joined in the effort, co-sponsoring legislation to establish juvenile research institutes and by 1974, sponsoring the Juvenile Delinquency Act. The CBC has continued to address issues of juvenile justice over the years, and through legislation such as Rep. Scott’s most recent Youth Promise Act, which seeks to engage with communities to develop effective prevention and intervention programs to decrease juvenile delinquency, has reaffirmed their commitment to demanding the fairest of treatment for those under the juvenile justice system.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 continued the conversation in Congress of racially disproportionate patterns of sentencing, but this time, through the lens of sentencing disparity in crack cocaine v. powder cocaine offenses. Prior to this law, the structure of earlier policies made it such that the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger a criminal offense was a 100:1 weight ratio. Crack cocaine offenses were also bound to a mandatory minimum five-year sentence. Crack cocaine is the cheaper of the two drugs and has historically been used predominantly by blacks, as opposed to powder cocaine, which has historically been used more by whites. Blacks were much more likely to receive harsher sentences as a result of this sentencing disparity, but since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which was introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (VA), the weight ratio has been reduced to 18:1. The Fair Sentencing Act was ultimately signed into law in 2010 by President Obama, but if not for the tireless efforts of CBC members who introduced and re-introduced earlier versions of this legislation during previous congresses, such an accomplishment could have been a pipe dream. Reps. Floyd Flake (NY), Charles Rangel (NY), Maxine Waters (CA), Donald M. Payne (NJ), and several others addressed the disparity issue and began introducing legislation beginning from the early 1990s.
While much of the CBC’s support of criminal justice legislation has focused on ensuring rights for persons either facing incarceration or currently incarcerated, the CBC has also recognized the importance of ensuring rights for formerly incarcerated persons committed to re-entering society in a productive way. As early as 1973, members of the CBC, including Reps. Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs, and Charles Rangel, co-sponsored legislation that sought to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1970 to prohibit states from denying former criminal offenders the right to vote. To date, because of the tireless efforts of members of the CBC, there have been significant improvements in the policies most deeply affecting ex-offenders. The most recent passing of The Second Chance Act of 2007, which was introduced by Rep. Danny K. Davis and officially signed into law in 2008, marked a significant victory for those committed to reducing recidivism and offering for viable options and support for former criminal offenders reentering society.
Criminal justice legislation introduced and sponsored by the CBC was not always guaranteed to be passed, of course, but they continued to challenge not only those in political office, but the American people to recognize all Americans as having equal justice under the law.