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Shared Struggles, Shared Successes: Working at the Intersection of LGBTI and Disability Rights
July 21, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

During LGBTI Pride Month, advocates, scholars, authors and artists joined officials from across the government at the White House Forum on LGBTI & Disability Issues.  This first-of-its-kind event focused on intersections between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and disability communities, and was attended by representatives from across the federal government.  As the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches on July 26, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reflects on the civil rights challenges faced by both communities.

As the arm of the Justice Department tasked with enforcing both the ADA and civil rights laws that protect LGBTI individuals, the Civil Rights Division was proud to participate in this important forum.  Megan Schuller, an attorney in the Disability Rights Section and member of the division’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Working Group, emphasized the similar challenges faced by LGBTI individuals and by people with disabilities, the unique challenges faced by LGBTI people with disabilities and the fact that both groups are stronger when they work together.

Many of the civil rights challenges faced by LGBTI people also confront people with disabilities.  Both groups are discriminated against in education, employment and housing.  Both groups face stigma from public service providers.  And both groups remain targets of harassment and hate crimes.  The division strives to address these critical issues.

The ADA demands equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, employment and state and local services, and stands as a natural intersection of the civil rights struggles of both groups.  Alliances between the disability community and other civil rights movements were critical to passage of the ADA, and provided a united front against challenges to the act, such as efforts to exclude people with AIDS, which were defeated due to the united front of the disability and LGBTI movements. 

As a result, the ADA protects Americans with HIV or AIDS, which disproportionately affect LGBTI people.  Combating stigma and discrimination based on HIV status is crucial to ending this epidemic.  The division’s HIV/AIDS enforcement under the ADA since the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was announced in July 2010 has been robust.  Much of that work has involved allegations that individuals were denied care or were treated differently in health care because they have HIV.  In 2013, the division also successfully challenged the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ policy of segregating and discriminating against inmates with HIV, and in March 2014, reached a settlement agreement with Gwinnett College resolving allegations that the school did not allow a student with HIV to fully participate in its programs and classes. 

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which may include discrimination based on a person’s nonconformity with stereotypes associated with that person’s real or perceived gender, as well as on the basis of disability.  Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, while the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities. 

The division’s settlements with the Arcadia School District in California and the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota also show that sex-based harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated and the division will use the laws and tools it has to fight the next generation of civil rights challenges. 

The division also vigorously prosecutes hate crimes, including crimes against LGBTI persons and individuals with disabilities.  The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes violence committed because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, if linked to interstate commerce.  Since the act’s passage, the division has made indictments in 27 hate crimes cases, including six separate cases in which 10 defendants committed offenses because of sexual orientation.  In 2013, the department charged five people with a hate crime for abuse of victims with mental disabilities; the first case in the nation to challenge a hate crime against people with disabilities. 

Though much progress has been made in these areas, substantial work remains.  To illustrate, while the ADA protects individuals from disability-based discrimination in employment, the civil rights laws do not yet fully protect individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of their LGBTI status.  The same is true of education, housing and other areas where there are not explicit prohibitions of discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Even so, the division is committed to using every tool available to fight for the rights of LGBTI individuals and persons with disabilities.  As the White House Forum reminded its participants, those battles are essential to achieving a more equal America for all.

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
60 Years Later: Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education
May 19, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

Six decades ago, in its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court observed, “…it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” 

Education is the foundation of the American dream.  It offers a gateway to opportunity and to a better future, especially for poor and disadvantaged communities. 

Since the 1960s, the Civil Rights Division has fought hard to dismantle racial discrimination and segregation in our nation’s public schools.  As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, the struggle for equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination is not over, and the division is vigorously enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that the promise of Brown is better realized for all of America’s schoolchildren. 

In many cities the vestiges of segregation continue to persist.  With a docket of nearly 200 desegregation cases, the division is actively working to ensure that school districts still under court orders, such as Cleveland, Mississippi, where two high schools less than a two miles apart are still racially identifiable, meet their long overdue obligation to integrate schools. 

The division also works to ensure that districts provide all students with equal access to curricular offerings, including the coursework necessary to prepare them for college, and extracurricular activities.  In Monroe City, Louisiana, the division reached an agreement in 2010 to end severe educational inequities between schools with virtually all black student populations and schools that served most of the district’s white students.  Prior to the agreement, at one high school with 100 percent African-American enrollment, the district offered only five gifted and honors courses and not a single Advanced Placement class.  By contrast, the district offered nearly 70 Advanced Placement, gifted and honors courses at a high school whose student population was 43 percent white.  The division’s consent decree requires the district to take steps to offer the same courses at all of its high schools. 

In recent months, the division has worked to address a more modern form of exclusionary policy: disparities in school discipline.  Too often, the effects of school discipline policies are not felt equally—students of color and those with disabilities receive more frequent and more severe punishments than their peers for comparable misbehavior. 

Last year, a division investigation into disciplinary practices in the Meridian, Mississippi, public school system alleged that black students frequently received far harsher discipline, including arrest and expulsion, than white students for comparable misbehavior. 

A minor school discipline offense should not land a student in a police precinct.  The adverse effects of early interaction with the juvenile or criminal justice systems can be permanent, limiting young peoples’ opportunities for education, employment, housing and even the right to vote for the rest of their lives. 

The division’s agreement with the Meridian school system to stop racial discrimination in school discipline was the first of its kind.  To ensure that other districts know how to prevent situations like the one found in Meridian, the Departments of Justice and Education also released guidance to public schools across the country on their obligations to carry out student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.  This guidance provides templates for schools to adopt effective disciplinary practices that avoid discrimination and take steps to keep all students in school. 

As a government, we have a critical responsibility to fight together to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children.  This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Division remains committed to using all available tools to ensure that every child can learn and thrive without being discriminated against or segregated because of their background. 

The Civil Rights Division’s “Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education” fact sheet is available online.

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
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.

Providing Language Access in the Courts: Working Together to Ensure Justice
March 11, 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 www.LEP.gov.

Attorney General Holder Marks 20th Anniversary of Historic Executive Order on Environmental Justice
February 11, 2014 Posted by

Twenty years ago today, our nation took a significant step forward on the long road to securing a more just and equal nation.  On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, requiring every federal agency to address environmental justice in low-income communities and communities of color.  This order built on existing efforts by the administration, members of the legal community, environmentalists, advocates, and citizens at the time – as well as countless pioneers who had gone before – to remedy the health, safety, and economic consequences of environmental problems that disproportionately hurt historically disadvantaged communities.

Decades earlier, in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. consistently spoke out about the prevalence of pollution in low-income neighborhoods; the proximity of hazardous facilities to communities of color; and the dangerous and deplorable working conditions for Americans of modest means.  It was this work that brought him to Memphis, Tennessee, first in March of 1968 to lead African American sanitation workers in a strike – and then, several days later, to take part in a march with these workers that was scheduled for April 5th – a day he would not live to see.

In the years that followed, countless Americans have been inspired by Dr. King and others to speak out, to engage, and – thanks to important directives like President Clinton’s Executive Order – to bring about once-unimaginable progress.  Yet, despite all that’s been achieved, research shows that low-income families and families of color are still more likely than other American families to find themselves living in communities with contaminated water and polluted soil.  Their neighborhoods are still more likely to be close to industrial waste sites and more vulnerable to the placement of landfills nearby.

That’s why the Department of Justice remains committed to advancing the aims of President Clinton’s Executive Order, and integrating environmental justice principles into its everyday work and mission.  Many examples of how the Department has moved, in recent years, to reinforce and bolster the objectives of the Executive Order can be found in our third Implementation Progress Report on Environmental Justice, which we are releasing today.  From working collaboratively with our client agencies to ensure that environmental justice is a part of government decision-making; to participating in dialogues with government agencies, grassroots environmental advocates, industry representatives, and tribal governments on environmental justice issues; to promoting the effective use of civil rights statutes, particularly Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in tandem with federal environmental laws to secure the goals of the Executive Order, we are acting on our resolute commitment to addressing environmental, socioeconomic, and racial inequities wherever they exist.  As the report also details, we have achieved demonstrable benefits and effective legal remedies for vulnerable populations that have been adversely impacted by violations of environmental laws.  But this work is only the beginning.

All Americans can be proud of, and encouraged by, the progress that has been made in recent years.  But there’s no denying that a great deal of work remains before us.  For as long as I have the honor of serving as Attorney General, the Department of Justice will continue to prioritize environmental protection.  And I am confident that, by working closely with key federal partners and other stakeholders across America, we will be able to keep building on past successes, advancing shared goals, and realizing the promise of environmental justice.

Pedro’s Story: When Given the Chance, People with Disabilities Can Overcome Barriers to the American Dream
January 31, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

Every day, countless Americans with disabilities are excluded from accessing important ladders of opportunity.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important tool for challenging assumptions and discrimination that trap people with disabilities in poverty and segregation.  When given the chance, people with disabilities are establishing their rightful place in the greater American workforce and the middle class, and are showing that they, too, can achieve the American Dream.  Pedro is one such person.

When Pedro graduated high school in 2010, at age 21, he found himself at home with no job prospects and no career direction.  A native Spanish speaker with intellectual disabilities, Pedro’s education had not prepared him to enter the general workforce; instead, he was headed for a life of segregated employment and below-minimum wages. 

Pedro attended a Providence, R.I., high school where students with intellectual disabilities participated in an in-school “sheltered workshop,” where there were no students without disabilities.  The students spent their school days sorting, assembling and packaging items such as jewelry and pin-back buttons, earning between 50 cents and $2 per hour for their labor.  Rather than providing the education and services needed to help them transition into regular jobs, the school prepared students for segregated, below-minimum-wage work in adult sheltered workshops.  The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2013 investigation of Rhode Island found that, indeed, the school-based workshop was a direct pipeline to a nearby adult workshop.  

Like many before him, Pedro began working at the adult workshop after high school.  Staff described Pedro as an excellent worker who stays on task and performs well, but he was paid just 48 cents an hour.  And because people who enter this workshop often stay there for decades, and are rarely offered help to move into community-oriented jobs, Pedro’s career outlook was dim. 

That all changed in June 2013 when the department entered into an interim settlement agreement with the state of Rhode Island and the city of Providence, requiring the state and city to provide the employment services necessary to help workers at the adult workshop and students at the school-based workshop move into integrated, competitive-wage jobs.  At the same time, the Providence Public School District closed the school-based workshop so students with disabilities can focus on education and career preparation. 

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (the agency) announced that it has entered into a settlement agreement with the City of Providence, the Providence School Board and Pedro’s former high school after the agency’s investigation found violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Under the agreement, students will receive back pay for the work they did at the sheltered workshop.

Pedro was interested in the restaurant industry, so in 2013 he joined a culinary arts training program and 12 weeks later, helped by federal and state services, Pedro began working in the kitchen at a restaurant in the community.  He has excelled and forged strong working relationships with other employees.  Pedro says that he loves his job.

The owner of the company describes Pedro as the heart of the business.  “He has a great personality and loves working here,” he says.  “But more than just a personality, he does a great job.” 

In December 2013, just a few months after starting at the restaurant, Pedro was Employee of the Month.   His manager said that Pedro was chosen for the award because “he has changed the culture of the company by inspiring everyone around him to reach higher; he has led by example.”  Pedro has become known for his positive work ethic and his commitment to teamwork. 

Pedro started his job with a  job coach, funded by the state and federal government, but because the restaurant position was such a good match for Pedro and natural supports developed so quickly, Pedro no longer needs coaching, and is now helping the coach train other new employees with disabilities. 

Pedro deeply values his new job, where he has the chance to work with peers without disabilities, earn a competitive wage and employee benefits and enjoy the advantages of community employment.  His supervisor points out that the company, too, has experienced major benefits.  She describes the strong sense of pride in hiring Pedro, and giving him the opportunity to realize his capabilities and participate in the greater American workforce:  “It’s a very fulfilling experience to see Pedro mainstream himself, to show responsibility and to see him getting an honest wage for his work.” 

Pedro’s life is on a new path – and there’s no looking back.

POSTED IN: Civil Rights Division  |  PERMALINK
 
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