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Promoting and Protecting Human Rights: The Department of Justice’s Commitment to Equality
March 14th, 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.

Providing Language Access in the Courts: Working Together to Ensure Justice
March 11th, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Deeana Jang, Chief of the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section in the Civil Rights Division.

Access to courts and administrative proceedings is critically important.    Whether cases involve child custody, domestic violence, eviction, foreclosure, wage claims or criminal prosecution, the stakes are too high for individuals to be effectively excluded from courtroom participation because of their English proficiency.  Limited English proficient (LEP) individuals should not lose custody of their children because of their English ability.  LEP victims of domestic abuse should not have to rely on family, friends or abusers to interpret in the courtroom, and LEP defendants should not be interpreted by prosecutors.  Regardless of English proficiency, individuals need to understand and have access to judicial proceedings and court operations.  We are all considered equal under the law, and ensuring equal treatment and access in the judicial system are priorities of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

There are over 25 million people in the United States who are considered limited English proficient individuals, a population that has almost doubled since 1990.  Our justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy and our constitutional right to due process.    Meaningful language access is not just necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our judicial system; it is required by law.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, entities that receive federal financial assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of national origin, and failing to provide language access in courts violates Title VI.

Recently, we were delighted to bring together key stakeholders in the justice system to discuss efforts to improve language access in the courts for LEP individuals and to address the work that remains.  At that event, we released our Language Access Planning and Technical Assistance Tool for Courts, designed to help courts prevent Title VI violations and ensure access to justice for all.  This tool allows court systems to self-assess how they are providing language services and how these services can be improved.  It is the product of the experience of our team at FCS and the thoughtful comments by numerous individuals and organizations, representing the bench, bar, advocates and others who reviewed a draft when it was made available for public comment.  We are grateful for their input and hope this tool will be used by court systems for years to come.

Associate Attorney General Tony West and Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels of the Civil Rights Division made clear in their remarks at the event that ensuring access to state courts for LEP individuals is a priority at the highest levels of the Department of Justice.

“While there are myriad challenges we face while trying to provide equal access to justice, we are focusing on one important component here today — the ability of LEP individuals to receive equal access to language services,” said Samuels.  “Our collective commitment to justice is what makes our system work, and all individuals should be able to participate meaningfully, from the time they walk into the courthouse to the time they leave it.”

To ensure that no LEP individual is denied justice due to a court’s failure to provide language services, the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section’s (FCS) Courts Team provides policy guidance and technical assistance to state court systems and undertakes enforcement actions across the country.  Previous blogs have highlighted this work, for example, in Rhode Island and Colorado.  Most recently, the department resolved a complaint with the King County Superior Court in Washington, and the North Carolina Court System has committed to provide full free interpreter coverage for LEP litigants as a result of an FCS investigation.

But we know that we cannot make meaningful language access a reality without the work of other committed stakeholders, including the courts, bar, advocates and access to justice communities.  The event was an illustration of this shared commitment, and featured Vanessa Ruiz, Senior Judge on the DC Court of Appeals; Lisa Wood, Chair, American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants; and Harry Spence, the Court Administrator for the Massachusetts Trial Court.  Panelists discussed the DOJ tool, the American Bar Association 2012 Standards for Language Access in Courts and promising practices in Massachusetts.  We were also pleased to have staff from the National Center for State Courts at this event to share information on their Call to Action.  The National Center on Access to Justice also highlighted their new Justice Index, a tool that provides a snapshot of state rankings in several key access to justice areas.  We were joined by staff from the Access to Justice Initiative who underscored the connection between access to justice and language assistance services in courts and administrative proceedings.

The department has taken similar measures with other recipients of federal funding, such as jails, juvenile justice facilities and law enforcement agencies.  As a result, many recipients have created language access rules and plans.  For instance, the New York Governor’s Office required language access plans, and in Washington, D.C., the Office of Human Rights oversees and enforces the D.C. Language Access Act of 2004.  We have also worked with our partners across the federal government to ensure that all federal agencies are living up to their commitment to provide meaningful access to their services to LEP individuals and their beneficiaries.

A video of the event will be available on the state courts resources page of the LEP website.  The resource list from the event is available here.  Many thanks to Christine Stoneman, Michael Mulé, Andrea Plewes and the rest of the FCS staff, contractors and interns for making this happen.

For further information about FCS’s work, please visit the website and read our Title VI Four Year Report.  For additional LEP-related resources, please go to

Ensuring the Right to Counsel for All Individuals
February 20th, 2014 Posted by
This blog is posted courtesy of DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance policy advisor Kim Ball.
February 11, 2014

By: Kim Ball, BJA Policy Advisor

Last year, our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). This case unanimously established that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that states appoint lawyers for those accused of a crime that carries a potential loss of liberty who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In the years since Gideon, state governments and policymakers have struggled with finding the most effective ways to make their courts fair, promote public safety and fiscal responsibility, and ensure quality representation for all defendants at every stage of a criminal proceeding.

Last year, to help state policymakers and legislators evaluate their public defense services, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) committed $90,000 to technical assistance to help several states meet their constitutional obligations to provide quality legal representation for all defendants.

Recently, BJA NTTAC provided funding for the Mississippi Office of the State Public Defender (OSPD) to work with the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC), a non-profit organization that specializes in providing right to counsel technical services. The OSPD and 6AC worked together to examine how the delivery of trial-level public defense is provided across the state. With the help of the 6AC, the OSPD surveyed judges, county executives, and public defense providers to document how trial-level services are delivered at the circuit court level. The OSPD compiled survey responses into a map and data table, and disseminated these findings back to criminal justice stakeholders for review. According to David Carroll, 6AC Executive Director, “doing this comparison allowed local policymakers and stakeholders to see their county in the context of others.”

Next, the 6AC compared Mississippi’s public-defense delivery system with its four neighboring states, which also proved helpful to the OSPD and stakeholders in understanding where Mississippi’s public defense delivery system ranks in relation to comparable states. Using the findings of the survey and comparison to the other states, the 6AC will provide a report to the OSPD identifying potential shortcomings in Mississippi’s trial-level public defense services and offer recommendations to address them. The full report will be made public in March 2014 and will be made accessible on the OSPD and 6AC web sites.

Mississippi is just one state among many looking for ways to improve its state-wide public defense delivery system. “Helping states measure their public defense systems against established standards of justice is a critical step in living up to the ideals of the Sixth Amendment,” said Carroll. “The right to counsel is fundamental and essential to fair trials.” Policymakers and state governments are becoming more and more aware there is a public defense crisis, and are looking for ways to address it by working with organizations like the BJA NTTAC and the 6AC to identify problems and look for solutions.

If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future TTA Today blog post or to obtain information related to a particular topic area, please email us at

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Trial Advocacy Training for Tribal Court Judges, Prosecutors, and Defenders
November 22nd, 2013 Posted by

Since 2011, the Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ) has partnered with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Tribal Services to host a series of tribal court trainings known as the Tribal Court Trial Advocacy Training Program. This free, three-day trial advocacy course is designed to improve the trial skills of judges, public defenders, and prosecutors who appear in tribal courts. All trainings are staffed by experienced tribal prosecutors, defenders, judges, Assistant United States Attorneys who practice in Indian Country, and Assistant Federal Public Defenders.

The program seeks to strengthen tribal courts in furtherance of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the authority that the statute recognizes for tribal courts to exercise jurisdiction over serious criminal cases including felonies that potentially carry lengthy prison sentences. To implement this enhanced sentencing authority, tribal courts must provide substantive and procedural safeguards, including lawyers for indigent defendants who face incarceration for more than one year and law-trained judges to preside over the cases. These same safeguards are incorporated into the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013′s voluntary special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction. By providing trainings for defenders, prosecutors, and judges, the program aims to strengthen the skills of those who appear in tribal courts so that tribes can exercise greater sovereignty in criminal justice matters that occur on their lands.

The first training in the series was held in August 2011 in Rapid City, S.D. In a unique and effective teaching strategy, trainings included combined sessions for defenders and prosecutors as well as breakout sessions that allowed each side to further develop trial skills. Participants gave overwhelmingly positive feedback at the end of their training and voiced support for the concept of combined trainings.

Since that time, additional trainings have been held in Phoenix, Ariz.; Duluth, Minn.; Ignacio, Co.; Great Falls, Mont.; Chinle, Navajo Nation (Ariz.); Seattle, Wash; Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Missoula, Mont.; Grand Forks, N.D.; Reno, Nev.; and Philadelphia, Miss.

Based on the success of these trainings, additional trainings have been scheduled in the next two months:

  • December 2-5, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • January 27-31, 2014 in Albuquerque, N.M.

These trainings are catered to the needs of the communities in which they are offered. For example, in Grand Forks, N.D., in June 2013, attendees met with the federal justice leaders in the state about the importance of strong independent tribal courts to ensure public safety in Indian County. Participants heard from Chief Justice Ralph Erickson of the U.S. District Court Judge for the District of North Dakota; Tim Purdon, U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota; and Neil Fulton, Federal Defender for the Districts of South and North Dakota.

Chief Justice Erickson cautioned that for tribal courts to be effective, “the principles of independence and due process have to be at center stage.”

And he also encouraged tribal courts to draw from their community’s traditions and cultures:

“Tribes can and should incorporate Indian cultural traditions as peacemaker courts and talking circles, and those features should be respected by people outside the tribes.”

US Attorney Purdon similarly noted that tribal courts “don’t have to be the mirror image of a state or federal court and that Standing Rock system of handling cases in a peacemaker manner amongst disputing parties is a model that can be replicated.”

Additional trainings in 2014 are being planned, which will be posted here. All trainings are free with CLE credit available and open to judges, public defenders, and prosecutors who appear in tribal courts. For more information about these trainings and how to register, please visit

Health, Innovation and the Promise of VAWA 2013 in Indian Country
September 6th, 2013 Posted by

By Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President
and Tony West, U.S. Associate Attorney General

Yesterday morning, we made our way north from Seattle, past gorgeous waterways, and lush greenery to visit with the Tulalip tribes of western Washington. We saw first-hand, a tribal court system which serves to both honor the traditions of its people and to foster a renewed era of tribal self-determination.

The Tulalip Tribes of Washington, like many American Indian tribes, have built a tribal court system that serves the civil needs of their community, holds criminals accountable, and protects the rights of victims and the accused in criminal cases. By engaging the entire spectrum of stakeholders, including judges, the police, public defenders, tribal attorneys, as well as tribal elders, and even offenders in many cases– the system they have put in place is producing impressive results with a unique focus on innovative, restorative, and communal solutions.

Because of the successful 2013 Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which President Obama signed into law on March 7, 2013, tribal courts and law enforcement will soon be able to exercise the sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence those who commit acts of domestic violence or dating violence or violate certain protection orders in Indian country, regardless of the defendant’s Indian or non-Indian status. The tribal provisions of this landmark legislation were originally proposed by the Department of Justice in 2011 to address alarming rates of violence against native women. We believe today, as we did then, that this is not only constitutionally sound law, but it is also a moral prerogative and an essential tool to ensure that non-Indian men who assault Indian women are held accountable for their crimes.

The 2013 VAWA reauthorization might never have happened without the relentless efforts of native women advocates like Tulalip Tribal Vice Chairwoman Deborah Parker, whose personal courage and dedication to this cause helped carry the day. The Tulalip Tribe was but one example that helped demonstrate to Congress and many others that there are tribal courts prepared to exercise this important authority that was swept away by the Supreme Court’s 1978 Oliphant ruling.

This new law generally takes effect on March 7, 2015, but also authorizes a voluntary pilot project to allow certain tribes to begin exercising this authority sooner.

After a visit to the Tribal Courthouse, we then visited the Tulalip Legacy of Healing Safe House, a domestic violence shelter housed in facilities renovated with federal Recovery Act funds, to provide victims a safe place, and the chance they need to start fresh and rebuild.

And finally, it wouldn’t have been an authentic trip to Tulalip lands and the Pacific Northwest without a traditional salmon luncheon. We joined around 50 tribal members at the Hibulb Cultural Center to learn more about the ancient tribal traditions of the Tulalip people, and of course, to enjoy the region’s most time-honored and delicious delicacy.

We were reminded this week of how much progress is being made by tribal justice systems across the country. These efforts are being led by courageous native people like the Tulalip who are dedicated to making the promise of the VAWA 2013 Reauthorization into a reality for generations of Native American women.

Also posted at:

Race and the Juvenile Justice System: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington
August 29th, 2013 Posted by

This post is courtesy of  Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels

The Civil Rights Division is acutely aware of the impact that the criminal justice system has on communities of color.  As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it remains an inescapable fact that disparities at nearly every stage of  the criminal process keep too many African Americans, Latinos and other minorities in poverty and deny them the opportunities that so many in the civil rights movement fought to achieve. 

The consequences of these inequities are perhaps greatest for America’s youth. The adverse effects of early interaction with the juvenile or criminal justice systems can be permanent—often, they deprive those caught up in the system of opportunities for educational advancement, employment, access to housing and even the right to vote.  

Under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department’s commitment to ensuring equal justice and equal opportunity for America’s youngest generation—by, among other things, dismantling the school to prison pipeline and defending the constitutional rights of those in the juvenile justice system—has never been stronger.  The Attorney General’s remarks at the National Action to Realize the Dream March commemorating the 50th anniversary emphasized this commitment and that the quest for justice will continue until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law. 

Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

Education is the foundation of the American dream—particularly for students who come from challenging circumstances, it is the gateway to opportunities to participate in the American dream.  Nearly six decades ago, in his opinion in Brown v. Board of Education , Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”  

The Civil Rights Division has been working to ensure that our schools are a road to opportunity—rather than a pipeline to prison—for all students.

This year, the department entered into a first of its kind settlement with the school system in Meridian, Miss. to address racial discrimination in school discipline.  The Civil Rights Division’s investigation into the school system documented truly egregious incidents of disproportionate disciplinary action toward black students. For example, one student was suspended and subsequently arrested for wearing the wrong socks to school. Another student was sprayed with mace and arrested after refusing to tuck in his shirt.

The investigation found that black students frequently received harsher disciplinary consequences—including suspension, expulsion and school-based arrest—than white students for comparable misbehavior.

The department’s settlement with the Meridian school system lays out a far-reaching plan to ensure that students will no longer be unlawfully channeled out of their classrooms and into the juvenile justice system. Through agreements like these, the Civil Rights Division attempts to make certain that our schools provide a pathway to success, rather than incarceration, for all students.

 Juvenile Justice

The division has also been working to protect the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system. In Shelby County, Tenn., a Justice Department investigation found that the juvenile court systemically violated the Due Process rights of youth who appeared for delinquency proceedings, as well as the Equal Protection rights of African-American youth.

At every critical inflection point, we found that African-American youth were statistically more likely than similarly situated whites to be driven deeper into the juvenile justice system. And there was a significantly higher risk for young black men to be removed to the adult system than their white counterparts.

In response to these findings, and working with the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Civil Rights Division entered into a comprehensive settlement to ensure that children in Shelby County will receive the full protections provided under our Constitution. This agreement has already led to significant improvements, including the hiring of a juvenile defender, and will help make Shelby County a model for juvenile courts across the country.  Moreover, data collected from this settlement will help us better understand what intervention works to keep children in the community and out of detention.

The Civil Rights Division is committed to taking the steps necessary to protect the rights of America’s youth—in the classroom, in our courts, and across the country. In pursuing this mission, the division hopes to ensure that future generations live in a country moving ever closer to Dr. King’s dream of true equality and fairness.


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