Transforming the legal system to ensure equal justice, accountability, and the protection of civil rights
Bringing fairness and dignity to our legal system is one of the most profound civil and human rights issues of our time. The unequal treatment of people of color and people who are low-income undermines the progress we have made over the past five decades toward equality under the law.
New research shows that nearly one in two adults in America — approximately 113 million people — has an immediate family member who is currently or formerly incarcerated. Our nation must be willing to imagine new paradigms for public safety that do not rely exclusively on criminalization, and we must take bold action to end the structural inequalities and racism that plague the system.
At The Leadership Conference, our team partners with coalition members, local communities, and impacted people to build a fair and equitable legal system. Together, we are addressing injustice at every stage – from policing and pretrial detention to sentencing and incarceration to reentry. We also advocate for decarceration through the limited use of prisons and jails and the creation of meaningful pathways to redemption and rehabilitation.
Vision for Justice 2020 and Beyond: A New Paradigm for Public Safety
The American criminal-legal system is a stain on our democracy. The system replicates and reinforces patterns of racial and economic oppression that trace from slavery — and the result is a criminal-legal bureaucracy that denies millions of people the opportunities, legal equality, and human rights they deserve while fueling the world’s highest incarceration rate.
Vision for Justice 2020 and Beyond: A New Paradigm for Public Safety, developed in partnership with Civil Rights Corps, is a comprehensive platform of policy ideas to transform our criminal-legal system and change the way we approach public safety in this country. The Leadership Conference developed this platform because existing policies — and even new proposals — are often piecemeal and overly cautious. It is time for bold ideas. It is time to achieve the change we desperately need: a fundamental transformation and reorientation of the criminal-legal system. We created Vision for Justice 2020 and Beyond to offer exactly this prescription.
The history of policing in our nation has sowed a deep distrust of law enforcement in communities of color. In response, The Leadership Conference Education Fund launched the Policing Campaign to advance 21st century policing through community-led, collaborative reform. By centering community voices and developing common language to address the erosion of trust between police and the people they serve, the campaign rethinks public safety to create lasting change. We support federal legislation to hold law enforcement accountable, and partner with civil rights advocates and technologists to harness the power of data and ensure new policing tools and technologies uphold equal justice.
America’s pretrial justice system is broken. Our foundational legal principle holds that all people are innocent until proven guilty. And yet, the system too often treats people as if they are guilty before they are convicted. Nearly half a million people are in jail on any given day awaiting trial, most of them because they cannot afford to pay bail and return home. We work to end secured money bail and decarcerate most accused people pretrial, but without the use of harmful instruments like risk assessments. And through the coalition, we make sure policymakers understand that jurisdictions can — and should — abolish systems of monetary bail, combat mass incarceration, and meaningfully invest in communities.
Sentencing and Prison Reform
Disastrous War on Drugs-era laws created an unjust system that imprisons more people than any other industrialized nation in the world, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Latino, low-income, and nonviolent. But ending mass incarceration has become a popular and bipartisan issue. In 2018, Congress passed a law that makes important improvements to the federal prison system. That law, the FIRST STEP Act, is just the beginning. Our coalition will continue working to reduce the number of people unnecessarily entering the system, eliminate racial disparities, improve prison conditions, reduce overcrowding, and create opportunities for second chances.
When people return home from jails and prisons, the odds are stacked against them to meaningfully reintegrate back into society. Our nation’s laws and policies deny people with arrest or conviction histories their right to vote, access to education and employment, and eligibility for public benefits and student loans, and they face myriad other collateral consequences. Such obstacles harm millions of American families and make it nearly impossible for people to get a firm footing and pursue new opportunities to rebuild their lives. We work to eliminate barriers impacted people face when re-entering society and provide meaningful pathways to opportunities and communities where we all feel safe.
Athletes who peacefully protest police violence and mass incarceration embody our nation’s long tradition of fighting for a democracy that protects the civil and human rights of all. Share The Leadership Conference Education Fund's video and show solidarity with the athletes who dare to dream, dare to believe, and dare to kneel.
Pretrial Risk Assessments
Many jurisdictions are embracing pretrial risk assessment instruments — statistical tools that use historical data to forecast which people can safely be released from custody — as a strategy to curb pretrial incarceration and money bail. But the data driving many predictive algorithms reflect the flaws and biases already present in our justice system and, as a result, are limited. Pretrial risk assessment instruments should not be seen as a path toward bail reform. Real reform addresses underlying structural inequalities, rather than attempting to triage a structurally flawed system. Learn more about The Leadership Conference’s work on pretrial risk assessment and read our statement of concern.
Priorities for the 116th Congress
The Leadership Conference developed a comprehensive list of key administrative, oversight, and priority legislative initiatives that represent a path forward to realizing our nation’s promise of equal protection under the law. Our elected leaders must reduce the number of people unnecessarily entering the system, eliminate racial disparities, and create opportunities for second chances. Congress has more work to do to achieve the transformational change that will end mass incarceration in America.
The Death Penalty Has No Place in the United States
WASHINGTON – Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued the following statement regarding reports that the federal government will reverse a nearly two-decade moratorium to resume the federal death penalty:
Wright-Reed Act Would Reduce Exorbitant Prison Phone Rates
WASHINGTON – Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued the following statement on the introduction of S. 1764, the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2019, which would empower the Federal Communications Commission to reduce excessive intrastate rates for telephone calls from prisons:
Justice Department Dodges Meaningful Dialogue on Policing and Justice Reform
WASHINGTON —The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and ten civil rights organizations have submitted a letter to Attorney General Barr expressing grave concerns about an exclusive convening on policing consent decrees and settlement agreements. Barr promised during his Senate confirmation hearing to meet with civil rights organizations regarding policing and justice reform. But the Department never responded to the request that followed from The Leadership Conference and other organizations for a meeting on these critical issues.
Interested in learning more about the Justice Reform program, sharing a story about your experience with the legal system, or getting involved? Contact us and let us know your thoughts.