Skip to main content

Congress, stand up for civil rights

By Barbara R. Arnwine and Stephanie J. Jones, Special to CNN
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Tue August 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Barbara Arnwine, Stephanie Jones: We are heartened by two recent acts of justice
  • Decisions on mandatory minimums and "stop and frisk" racial profiling are right, they say
  • Arwine, Jones: Congress should follow up by passing the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013
  • The act would not force judges to impose a "one size fits all" penalty on offenders

Editor's note: Barbara R. Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Stephanie J. Jones is president of Stephanie Jones Strategies LLC and special public policy counsel to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

(CNN) -- Some of the most important turning points in the struggle for justice have occurred when individuals in our three branches of government courageously did the right thing by standing up against injustice.

In the 1960s, Attorney General Robert Kennedy marshaled the power of the federal government to protect protesters at pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. Rep. Charles "Mac" Mathias, a Maryland Republican, bucked his party and reached across the aisle to help draft the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Alabama Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson and the judges of the old Fifth Circuit helped to end legal segregation and enforce voting rights in the South despite much resistance.

Last week, in the midst of our preparations for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights community was heartened to see two modern-day versions of this kind of courage and commitment to justice. Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin landed a one-two blow against mandatory minimums and "stop and frisk" racial profiling.

Barbara R. Arnwine
Barbara R. Arnwine

Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer seek severe mandatory sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations. Citing a report that black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20% longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes, Holder said, "This isn't just unacceptable -- it is shameful. It's unworthy of our great country, and our great legal tradition."

Stephanie J. Jones
Stephanie J. Jones

It was inspiring, gratifying and satisfying to hear the nation's top law enforcement officer publicly recognize that mandatory minimum sentencing is wrong, overburdens our federal prison system and wreaks havoc on our communities.

Why some movements work and others wilt

In short, mandatory minimums have been a near disaster.

On the same day that Holder made his announcement, another courageous public servant also did the right thing by striking down as unconstitutional New York City's notorious practice of "stop and frisk."

Judge Shira Scheindlin found that between 2004 and 2012, the New York City Police Department made 4.4 million stops. Eighty-three percent of these stops were of blacks and Hispanics, even though they make up only 52% of the population. In 88% of these stops, the individual was found innocent of any wrongdoing and in 98.5% of the frisks, no weapon was found.

Stop-and-frisk debate part 1
Stop-and-frisk debate part 2

Judge Scheindlin's decision followed the tradition of great judges who upheld civil rights. And, in conjunction with Holder's announcement, it offers the promise of a new approach to law enforcement in the United States -- smarter, saner more humane strategies that are tough on crime without targeting, tormenting and demeaning people and communities of color.

We received a strong message from the executive and judicial branches. It is now time for the third branch of government -- Congress -- to adopt measures that address crime while protecting civil and human rights.

Congress took an important step three years ago with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. However, that law applied only to future crimes, and does not affect anyone convicted prior to enactment, an unfortunate gap in an otherwise worthy measure.

Rethinking drug sentences comes too late for some

Congress should close this gap and take steps toward correcting and preventing the corrosive impact of mandatory minimums by passing the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013.

Among other things, this act would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive to persons currently serving time for nonviolent drug crimes by allowing them to petition the courts for a review of their case. The bill would also reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and give judges more discretion to determine sentences in nonviolent drug cases, enabling them to tailor the sentence to fit the particular crime and individual offender rather than forcing them to impose a "one size fits all" penalty.

"Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has co-sponsored the act with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois. The bipartisan support for the act offers hope for meaningful change and we strongly urge Congress to pass this measure as soon as possible.

Opinion: Why did justice on incarceration take so long?

Fifty years ago this month, hundreds of thousands of Americans of all ages, races, economic conditions and political persuasions lined up on the right side of history, marched on Washington and stepped into posterity.

Today, every member of Congress has the opportunity to follow in their footsteps. If they look into their hearts and forward into history and honestly consider on which side of posterity they'd like to be at the 100th anniversary commemoration, they should know the right thing to do.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barbara R. Arnwine and Stephanie J. Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT