‘Big, Big Changes’: How Biden Civil Rights Professionals Reoriented the Justice Department

The most recent, publicly announced investigation was launched in Texas, where five juvenile detention centers are being screened for systemic physical or sexual abuse of children.

Kristen Clarke, civil rights chief for Biden, highlighted racial disparities in juvenile detention systems.

“Nationally, black children are more than four times more likely to be incarcerated than white children,” Clarke said last Wednesday. “And the disparity is even greater in Texas, where black children are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated.”

The measures show the shift in priorities now that a Democratic administration – with several Justice Department leaders with strong civil rights background – is in charge.

Perhaps the boldest of these moves is a review of the Justice Department’s police funding that was announced last month. The review is based on a civil rights law known as Title VI, which is often described as the sleeping giant of civil rights law, Bill Yeomans, a former deputy attorney general, told CNN by interim for civil rights.

“He can be incredibly powerful and he’s been underused,” said Yeomans, now a senior lecturer at Columbia Law School.

He and other former Justice Department officials told CNN that under former Democratic administrations, adopting the tool as a lever for upholding civil rights was discussed but never carried out. The review will assess how the department fulfills its Title VI obligations to “ensure that public funds do not promote racial discrimination,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said at an event last month. at the Texas Tribune Festival.

Gupta, who headed the Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, is now the Department’s No. 3 Leader, a role that allows her to oversee not only the Civil Rights Division, but other influential parts of it. agency, including civil law. division and the process of granting grants to the police.

“The kind of perspective I have on the department is different and unique,” ​​Gupta told the Texas Tribune Festival.

“These are big, big changes that we are seeing,” Sherrilyn Ifill, chair of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told CNN. “I don’t think there has ever been a full Title VI review by the Department of Justice.”

“Able to hit the ground while running”

Under President Donald Trump, leaders took a hard line in favor of policing; Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions virtually froze the type of systemic police service investigations – known as ‘model or practice’ investigations – that were reinvigorated under Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Trump’s Justice Department has also raised concerns over religious freedom, supporting legal challenges to Covid public health restrictions that states and localities have placed on churches, while the civil rights division has done little. on voting rights during Trump’s presidency.

Beyond the typical shift in focus of the Democratic administration, Biden’s leadership team had ingrained expertise in civil rights – Gupta is the first associate attorney general with a background in civil rights – as well as experience. previous in-depth within the department.

Clarke began her legal practice as a career lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice which she now heads. She also headed the Civil Rights Office of the New York State Attorney General’s Office and then headed the private legal group, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Biden’s selection of Gupta and Clarke – as well as Pamela Karlan, another civil rights lawyer whose current position as the division’s senior deputy attorney general did not require Senate confirmation – signaled that racial justice and rights voting, among other civic rights issues, would be the ministry’s top priority.

Gupta and Clarke faced deadly confirmation battles, with Republicans mostly united against them.

Within the civil rights community, expectations about what Biden’s management team could do were high, said Jon Greenbaum, senior deputy director of the lawyers committee.

“The idea of ​​this team was, what you’re what you’re capable of is that you’re able to get started quickly, probably in an unprecedented way, in terms of the people in those positions,” Greenbaum told CNN.

“Take care of unfinished business”

A week in mid-September summed up what this new management team would bring back. In addition to the police grant review and the announcement of the Georgia prison investigation, the department unveiled a redesigned approach to overseeing consent decree monitors, as well as new limits on strangulation. and no-strike warrants.

The prison investigation expands on efforts by previous administrations to investigate potential civil rights violations in the Georgian prison system, as an investigation, launched when Gupta headed Obama’s civil rights division DOJ, on the treatment of transgender prisoners in Georgia remains ongoing.

“This is a very strong sign that Vanita is going to take on the unfinished business,” said Julie Abbate, a former DOJ official who is now the national director of advocacy for Just Detention International, which focuses on ending abuse. sex in detention.

“Not just going back to the way things were, but making things even better than they were before, because the way things were under Obama was speech if anything,” said Abbate.
The DOJ’s fresh take on its standards for consent decree monitors – that is, those responsible for ensuring that law enforcement agencies comply with the civil rights agreements they have made with the department – came after Gupta held more than 50 meetings with stakeholders.

The ministry is seeking to bring more transparency into the fees paid by auditors, as well as to better monitor the speed at which ministries are brought into compliance.

“We want to encourage constitutional policing and compliance as quickly as possible,” Gupta told the Texas Tribune Festival, explaining the decision. “It’s about making sure that our communities can be safe and that people’s civil rights are protected.”

‘Thinking they are done … no way’

Even with the new developments, civil rights activists have said some of the measures – like the Justice Department’s new policy prohibiting the use of chokes unless lethal force is permitted – should only be the beginning. of a broader approach.

Noting that courts have previously considered strangulation to be a use of lethal force, Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the DOJ’s new policy was “not a big deal. step forward”.

“It is extremely important to articulate in policy that chokes should not be used,” Smith said. “But it really wasn’t a movement or a dramatic innovation.”

The policy announcement raised questions among prisoner rights advocates about the lack of transparency around the practices of the US Bureau of Prisons. Federal prisons house a relatively small segment of the US prison population, but still set the tone for the US government’s ability to influence local and state prison systems.

“It would be a good thing for Vanita and Kristen Clarke, and the attorney general to do that is to create transparency in the policies followed by the BOP, and how do you ban exactly these types of practices,” said Abbate.

“They approached like the 1% of the problem and think they are done, with that especially with the BOP, no question,” she added.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a Civil Rights Act title. The correct version is Title VI.

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