The imprisonment of disproportionately large numbers of African-Americans constitutes the most serious human rights violation in the United States, and laws barring millions of felons from voting discriminate against minorities and are unconstitutional, an expert in criminal justice told students in a webinar organized by News-Decoder.
“It’s the largest human rights issue in the United States,” said Carroll Bogert, president of The Marshall Project, when asked about the many African-Americans in U.S. prisons.
Between 12 and 13 percent of the American population is African-American, but as of 2014 they made up 37 percent of the 2.2 million male inmates, according to U.S. government statistics.
Bogert said there is an “appalling” number of U.S. prisoners, more than in Russia or China. “It is a human rights issue, and also a weapon that America’s enemies use against us,” Bogert told students enrolled in an online course offered by Global Online Academy and News-Decoder.
The webinar on October 11 was hosted by Columbus Academy in Gahanna, Ohio, and broadcast worldwide by News-Decoder’s network.
Bogert said that in some states, felons are barred from voting, even if they are not in jail. “There are over a million people in the state of Florida who cannot vote because of a felony conviction,” she said. “I would describe it as not only a human rights abuse but actually a violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
“Crime is very, very low in America.”
Citing the recent film “13th” by Ava DuVernay, who directed “Selma,” and writings by Ohio State University Professor Michelle Alexander, Bogart said there is a clear argument that “incarceration is a continuation of longstanding traditions and policies in the United States that actually began with slavery … to keep black participation in the political system as low as possible.”
Before joining the Marshall Project, a non-partisan, non-profit news organization focusing on the U.S. criminal justice system, Bogert had worked for Human Rights Watch and before that as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek.
Bogert said the U.S. media share some of the blame for skewing citizens’ outlook on crime. “Crime is very, very low in America” compared to the past, Bogert said. “You wouldn’t necessarily know that if you read media reports of crime.”
At the international level, there has been “a slowing of momentum around human rights,” Bogert said, citing objections from China and Russia that the global human rights agenda aimed to undermine their regimes.
Bogert warned students not to assume that democracy and human rights always go hand in hand, saying that no country has a perfect human rights record.
“The Arab Spring has been incredibly painful and violent.”
At the international level, Bogert said:
- The global community could do more to challenge the Syrian government to ensure humanitarian aid reaches all of its needy citizens;
- Although the Chinese government deserves credit for improving its citizens’ economic livelihoods, China is “in the midst of one of the worst crackdowns in 25 years,” with many activists and even their lawyers in jail;
- Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration achieved a “very positive” human rights result in helping to create South Sudan;
- The Arab Spring has been “incredibly painful and violent” in part because civil institutions were not in place to ensure a smooth transition away from autocracy;
- With his brutal crackdown on drugs that has led to extrajudicial killings, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has “been even worse than we thought possible,” but the U.S. government’s reaction will be tempered by its concern not to lose influence among allies in Asia while China reasserts itself.