Action Alert

Consent Decrees: A Promising Pathway to Police Reform - Part One

Consent Decrees: A Promising Pathway to Police Reform - Part One


The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed following the savage 1991 beating of African-American motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers. The Los Angeles riots a year later gave the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice an extraordinary mandate. If police departments were found to be breaking the law, they would be placed under the oversight of a federal court and required to enter into a "consent decree," or a series of reforms designed to safeguard against future abuses by law enforcement.

Since 1980, the prison population in the United States has quadrupled. Many of those who are imprisoned have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, such as illegal possession and sale of drugs, which has led to the mass incarceration of men, particularly men of color and increasingly women. Since 1980, the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate for men. According to The Sentencing Project, the number of women in state and federal prisons has increased eight-fold from 13,200 in 1980 to 111,500 in 2005.

Racial Disparities

African-Americans have always been targeted and more harshly prosecuted for minor or nonviolent crimes. The war on drugs broadly refers to an escalation in law-enforcement activity with the stated aim of halting, and ultimately eradicating the sale and use of illicit drugs. According to Georgetown University, research shows that when black and white people engage in the same illegal activity and have the same criminal history, black people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to face tougher charges and more likely to receive longer sentences than whites.

Due to racial disparities, blacks are more likely to be arrested for a drug crime than their white counterparts are. Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than whites. Although people of color use and sell drugs at a similar rate as whites, the proportion of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses who are Black or Latino is 57 percent. According to Center for American Progress, the war on drugs has negatively affected black and Latina women. Women are more likely to be imprisoned than men, and while women consume and sell drugs at the same rate, black and Latina women are more likely to be caught up in the system, with little advantage in negotiating shorter sentences.

During the Obama era, policies led to a sharp decline in the number of drug offenders hit with federal mandatory minimum sentences, from 62 percent in 2013 to 44 percent last year, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered federal prosecutors to return to tough policies against drug abusers, ending a push by the Obama administration to clear prisons of lower-level criminals serving long, mandatory minimum sentences.

prison population
Courtesy of Prison Policy Initiative

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stated that consent decrees — formal agreements between municipalities and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to improve local policing, often put in place in response to discriminatory practices — can “reduce the morale of police departments.” In his memo call for a review of DOJ consent decrees he wrote, “Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Sessions has stated that he plans to roll back on consent decrees because he believes that the decrees are going to cause more harm by making Americans feel less safe. 

Click Here.Read Part Two of the Consent Decrees Action Alert


Posted or updated: 7/28/2017 12:00:00 AM

Click Here.Read Part Two of the Consent Decree Action Alert 

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Take Action:

  • Contact your local congressional representative at the Capital Switchboard (202-224-3121) or in their district office to voice your support for:
    • H. R. 1055 - This bill establishes a commission to examine and report on: the disparate incarceration and the institution of forced prison labor within the African-American community, government and private sector support for and profit from mass incarceration, discriminatory laws and other forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors, and the lingering negative effects of mass incarceration.
    • S. 1258 - This bill requires states to report to the Attorney General certain information regarding use of force incidents involving law enforcement officers and civilians, and for other purposes.  

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