All posts by Maya Harris

On the Fight for Human Rights for Our Kids, Why Isn’t California Leading the Nation?

Today, in recognition of International Human Rights Day, the American Civil Liberties Union released a comprehensive analysis of the pervasive systemic and structural racism in America. The report, Race & Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice, is a response to the U.S. report to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released earlier this year. The U.S. report was a whitewash, sweeping under the rug the dramatic effects of widespread racial and ethnic discrimination in this country.

It’s time to begin an honest conversation about the fact that racial bias remains perhaps the most significant barrier to opportunity for people of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos. The ACLU report finds that discrimination in America permeates education, employment, the treatment of migrants and immigrants, law enforcement, and access to justice for juveniles and adults.

The results for California are particularly disturbing. The report documents the persistence of racial inequity and institutionalized discrimination in California’s educational and criminal justice systems, and in the treatment of immigrants. Among the examples cited in the report:

•Compared to schools attended mostly by white students, schools with a high concentration of African-American and Latino students are 74% more likely to lack textbooks for students to use for homework; 73% more likely to have evidence of cockroaches, rats or mice; and three times more likely to report that teacher turnover is a serious problem.

•In California, African Americans are given third-strike, 25-to-life prison sentences at a rate nearly 13 times the rate of whites. African Americans are 6.5% of the population, but they make up 45% of third strikers.

•Children of color are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole than white children in California, the worst racial disparities in the country. The California Supreme Court is currently considering the case of a 14 year old boy who is the youngest person in the United States to be sentenced to life without parole for a crime involving no physical injury to the victim.

Other reports echo these findings. Just last week, the Justice Policy Institute released a study of racial disparities in prison sentences for drug offenses in the 198 most populated counties in the nation. Four California counties made it into the top ten for sending the most African Americans to prison for drug offenses: Alameda, Kern, San Francisco, and San Mateo Counties. According to the report, Alameda and San Mateo Counties each send 35 times more African Americans than whites to prison for drug offenses, even though research shows almost no racial difference in drug use or sales.

A study by Building Blocks for Youth showed that, in Los Angeles County, youth of color are 2.5 times more likely than white youth to be transferred to adult court and, once in adult court, 3 times more likely to be sentenced to confinement than are white youth. Research conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency shows that African American youth are incarcerated at a rate 6 times greater than white youth in California.

The conclusion is inescapable: One of the most diverse states in the country, California has a two-tiered, separate and unequal educational and criminal justice system. In those institutions where we need justice the most, systemic racial bias is among the worst in the nation.

While the evidence of systemic human rights violations continues to pile up, California lawmakers continue to turn a blind eye. Despite overwhelming public support for limiting the three strikes law to violent felonies, the legislature has failed to act. As a result, judges continue to send people to prison for life for petty theft and other non-violent offenses. And despite overwhelming public support for alternatives to juvenile incarceration and judicial condemnation of the youth prisons, our state government has failed to shut them down.

The three simple criminal justice reforms that did pass the legislature this year—all intended to prevent wrongful convictions and ensure that only the guilty go to prison—were vetoed by the Governor, despite widespread support in newspaper editorials.  The California criminal justice system sends more people to prison, in raw numbers and per capita, than almost any other criminal justice system in the world—and the overwhelming majority of these people are African American and Latino.

California officials should be leading the conversation about how we can all work together to steer the state in a more promising direction. To turn this equation around, we need to have the courage to begin a more constructive—and productive—conversation about the relationship between race, justice and opportunity in this state.

Maya Harris is Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California.