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Human Rights Day: A cause for reflection

December 10th marks the annual celebration of Human Rights Day, a special anniversary in the global fight for human rights.  On that day, in 1948, the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  The document was born out of the unprecedented violence and dislocation from World War II.  It codified values of human equality, political freedom, and socio-economic dignity.  As such, the UDHR preamble begins:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

This clarion call follows with Article 1:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Although not a formally binding treaty, it nevertheless facilitated understanding of international standards for human rights that remains especially relevant today.  The UDHR is universal more than in name, as it has been declared the most translated document in the world.

This year the theme is My Voice Counts, which centers on the need for public participation in government, particularly among minority groups. The goal, while lofty, is of unquestionable importance.  As part of the theme, the U.N. is soliciting questions for the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay through their #VoiceCount Twitter hashtag and a number of online forums.  Given that, Human Rights Day is a cause for reflection by reform-mind criminal justice advocates, particularly those in the United States. 

One relevant question is how the U.S. can ensure more proportionate sentencing practices across the country.  A May 2012 report by the University of San Francisco, titled Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context, asks this question in light of the disproportionate use of life without parole (LWOP).  The U.S. is exceptional even among the minority of nations that employ LWOP.  America's LWOP population far exceeds others both in total and per capita figures.  The report notes there are more than 41,000 LWOP prisoners in the U.S., which on a per capita level is "51 times Australia's, 173 times England's, and 59 times the Netherlands'." 

This in part stems from highly punitive systems that employ mandatory minimums and Three Strikes Laws.  These sentences fail to proportionately administer justice, but rather fill prisons at an exorbitant cost.  However, California recently reformed their Three Strikes Laws, through Proposition 36, which requires the third strike be a "serious or violent" offense. 

Another question worth considering is how the U.S. criminal justice system can more humanely address vulnerable groups in its care.  This includes the aging prisoner population, many who have served the bulk of their sentence. A June 2012 ACLU report notes how disproportionate sentencing has significantly increased these elderly inmates, which comes at a significant fiscal cost.  Many are no longer a threat to society and their continued incarceration strains credibility.

Human Rights Day should give us pause to reflect on the universal principles of freedom and justice, formed from the fire of war and conflict 64 years ago.  CJCJ joins with activists and reform-minded organizations, which will gather in honor of those who have fought tirelessly for human dignity.  We humbly recognize their contribution, while steadfast in our pursuit of a fair and equitable criminal justice system that serves all.

~ Brian Goldstein

CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: Brian Goldstein, human rights, LWOP, racial disparities, three strikes

Posted in Blog, Sentencing, Social Justice

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