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Promoting and Protecting Human Rights: The Department of Justice’s Commitment to Equality
March 14, 2014 Posted by

This week, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin is representing the Justice Department in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss Civil Rights law enforcement at the Presentation of the U.S.’ Fourth Periodic Report Concerning the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  He gave the following remarks before the U.N. Human Rights Committee 

Thank you, Mary, and thank you to the Chair and members of the Committee.  My name is Roy Austin, and I serve as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.  I am honored to appear before this Committee.  I am joined today by my colleague, Bruce Swartz, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in our Criminal Division, who will be speaking to you later in the presentation. 

Since the founding of our country, in every generation, there have been Americans who sought and struggled to realize our Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice for all.  This past fall marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  As we as a country contemplate the progress we have made over the past 50 years, I am happy to take the floor to discuss our nation’s continuing efforts to advance the cause of equality and ensure that all Americans can live free from discrimination. 

Our aggressive enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws shows our commitment to meeting our international human rights obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

First and foremost, the right to vote is the bedrock of any democracy.  The Justice Department is committed to ensuring full participation in our democratic process through the aggressive and evenhanded enforcement of our voting rights laws.  In recent months, to protect the rights of minority voters, we, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, filed lawsuits against the states of Texas and North Carolina seeking to block the implementation of their highly restrictive voter identification laws.  These lawsuits evidence the department’s continuing commitment to ensuring that Americans across the country can cast a ballot free from discrimination. 

Like the right to vote, equal access to educational opportunities is essential to ensuring a strong future for our democracy.  Education is the gateway to full participation in our society.  Almost 60 years ago, our Supreme Court recognized that equal access to public education is a basic right.  The Justice Department continues to vigorously enforce federal laws to expand opportunities for all students, protecting them from discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, language, religion and disability. 

We strongly support diversity in our educational institutions.  Diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our diverse nation and to transcend the boundaries of race, language and culture as our economy becomes more globally interconnected.  This past summer, the Supreme Court preserved the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs. 

Equal opportunity also means that qualified borrowers deserve equal access to fair and responsible lending.  Since its creation in 2010, the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Lending Unit has obtained more than $775 million in monetary relief for borrowers and communities impacted by discriminatory lending. 

For the infrastructure of our democracy to remain strong, we must ensure meaningful access to our courts.  The stakes are too high in the courtroom context for parties or witnesses to be excluded because of their national origin.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, state courts that receive Justice Department funds must provide people with limited English skills meaningful access to their programs and services, and we have recently worked with over 15 states to ensure this access. 

Through its Access to Justice Initiative, the department is working to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair to all, irrespective of wealth and status.  In support of its mission to protect the Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel, the department successfully filed a statement of interest in 2013 in a class action lawsuit in Washington state.  Last December, the court issued an injunction that required the cities to hire a public defender supervisor to monitor and report on the delivery of indigent defense representation. 

Effective and accountable police departments are also a fundamental part of the infrastructure of democracy.  The vast majority of police departments in the United States work tirelessly to protect the civil and constitutional rights of the communities they serve.  But when systemic problems emerge, or officers abuse their power, the department uses its authority to implement meaningful reform and to hold specific individuals accountable under our criminal laws.  Over the last five years, the Civil Rights Division has obtained groundbreaking reform agreements with police departments to address issues including the excessive use of force; unlawful stops, searches or arrests; or policing that unlawfully discriminates against protected minority groups or women. 

Individuals confined in institutions are also often among the most vulnerable in our society.  For that reason, the Justice Department is continuing its work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.  Last month, a department investigation of Pennsylvania’s prisons found that the manner in which PDOC (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections) uses long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness—many of whom also have intellectual disabilities—constitutes a violation of their rights under the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The United States takes seriously the importance of addressing racial and ethnic disparities at all levels in the justice system, especially as it pertains to criminal sentencing.  We are working to modify our charging policies so that those who commit certain low-level, nonviolent federal offenses will receive sentences commensurate with their individual conduct—rather than be subject to mandatory minimum sentences. 

In addition, in our 2013 annual report to the Sentencing Commission, the United States called for reform of some mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, including sentences triggered by drug trafficking offenses.  In January 2014, the Commission voted to propose, for public comment, amendments that would include possible reductions to the sentencing guidelines levels for federal drug trafficking offenses.  These could have the effect of reducing eligible sentences by approximately 11 months. 

We are also making significant strides in our effort to reduce violence against women.  Under new provisions in the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, tribes and the federal government can better work together to address domestic violence against Native American women, who experience the highest rates of assault in the United States.  The Act has led to significant improvements at the local government level—where the majority of these crimes are prosecuted—by encouraging victims to file complaints, improving evidence collection, and increasing access to protection orders. 

The United States recognizes that the promotion of civil rights, equal opportunity and non-discrimination are fundamental to ensuring universal respect for human rights.  As these efforts make clear, the United States has made great strides, but we recognize that much work remains in our efforts to realize Dr. King’s dream of a country with equal opportunity and equal justice for all.

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