THE BLOG
01/21/2015 03:28 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

5 Ways the US Criminal Justice System Violates Human Rights -- And How We Can Do Better

In a move that received little attention in the domestic media, Iranian organization Global Centre to Support Human Rights has released a report on the state of human rights abuses in America. To many, this may seem the height of hypocrisy. But, perhaps, when a human rights organization in a virulently anti-democratic nation reports on the myriad of abuses occurring on our home turf, we would do well to take notice.

The release of the Senate torture report at the end of last year outraged many, and rightly so. Revelations concerning the heinous acts committed against people in U.S. custody underscored a deep hypocrisy in our national identity: we espouse a tradition of respect for the rule of law while subjecting an entire class of people to indefinite detention and torture -- war crimes under our domestic code and international law.

And in the aftermath, there have been concerted efforts by politicians to reaffirm a ban on torture, as well as cries to "purge" those in the administration to who signed off on such cruelties. But, as the Iranian report fairly points out, human rights abuses are not relegated to Guantanamo or black sites in Syria. The American criminal justice system has relied on -- and continues to rely on -- such tactics as the quotidian cost of doing business.

1. Law enforcement in this country is reliant on everyday brutalities.

Amnesty International found that, between 2001 and 2013, there were 540 deaths from police using stun guns, mostly against unarmed people who did not appear to pose a serious threat. The August 2014 U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination report similarly concluded (unsurprisingly to anyone watching the news last fall) that there is a trend of excessive use of force against minority populations by police. And a new study by Pro Publica that examined FBI data of police-involved deaths found that black males between the ages of 15 and 19 are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, even when adjusting for crime rates.

2. We have not remediated many past police abuses.

In Chicago, where I work, Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates tortured over 100 black men from the 1970s to 1990s, using such methods as electric shock, head bagging, mock executions and radiator burning. The effects of the Burge torture ring continue to reverberate in Chicago communities as dozens (and possibly over 100) of those victimized remain locked up as a result of coerced confessions obtained using torture, and despite efforts by civil rights lawyers to seek new hearings for these men.

3. Our country embraces imprisonment as a form of social apartheid.

The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prison population. A telling illustration of the problem: there are more Americans behind bars than were held in Stalin's gulags at the height of the autocrat's regime. Famously called the "New Jim Crow," the rate of incarceration for black American men has reached 4,347 per 100,000 Americans -- almost 27 times the incarceration rate of Saudi Arabia, a country the U.S. loves to cite for its systematic human rights abuses.

4. The U.S. regularly subjects human beings to isolation in prisons as a method of social control.

This includes incarceration for 22-24 hours a day, in cells as small as 6 x 9 feet. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study released in 2005 (the most recent data available), over 80,000 people were held in such restricted housing that year--a likely underestimate of today's population. A report recently released by the Committee Against Torture ("the other torture report") castigated the U.S. for its continuing reliance on solitary confinement, a practice known to cause mental decompensation, physical deterioration and increased rates of suicide. The practice indisputably violates the Convention Against Torture -- not to mention our own Constitution.

5. The U.S. leads the world, behind only Iraq, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia, in the use of the death penalty.

Methods of execution range from the most common form, lethal injection, to other more archaic variations like the gas chamber, hanging, and electrocution. In a country that extols dedication to the bill of rights, 6 in 10 Americans find it acceptable for the State to kill another human being convicted of murder; 28 percent of Americans even support the execution of the mentally ill. America's stance toward the death penalty is in direct opposition to the growing abolition movement in the international sphere.

This depressing litany of practices -- and others -- is why the U.N. Committee against Torture recently slammed the U.S. for its track record of violating human rights, including the systematic use of excessive force against unarmed black youth by police officers. And they are why even Iran is not wrong for criticizing the excesses of our criminal justice system.

With a new year upon us, it is time to resolve to change a criminal justice system that causes harm to so many. We can start by ensuring that the light of reform ignited by protests in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner does not die out, despite the backlash against such movements.

And while some may believe that the tactics used in the U.S. are necessary to keep peace, Europe presents a stark counterpoint to that argument. In Britain, where guns are strictly controlled, citizens are about 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than in America. Despite this, Britain's murder rate in 2012 was 1.2 per 100,000 people -- compared to the U.S. rate of 4.7. And in Germany, where police are trained not to use weapons in situations that commonly result in their use in the U.S., the murder rate in 2012 was 1.0 per 100,000 people. Europe has also outlawed the death penalty -- and initiated a human rights campaign against state-sanctioned executions in the U.S.

2014 was the year the United States began to wake up to the problems in our criminal justice system. Let's make 2015 the year we take the steps toward fixing them.