Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Fifth Installment

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom

Fifth Installment

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela

This week we will continue to evaluate the quality of democracy in the United States by looking at the protection of human rights of all citizens.

Protection of the human rights of all citizens.

Human rights are basic rights and freedoms that all people are entitled to regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language, or other status. Human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life, liberty and freedom of expression; and social, cultural and economic rights including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, and the right to work and receive an education. Human rights are protected and upheld by international and national laws and treaties.

While the United States has many constitutional and other regulatory guarantees of freedom and rights, there are several areas where laws and practices violate human rights that are recognized on an international level. These main areas are criminal and juvenile justice, immigration and national security. In addition, President Trump has taken positions that are xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist and cause harm to various communities of people in the U.S. and denigrate core human rights. These policies are most damaging to racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, immigrants, children, and prisoners. Here is a brief review of some of these areas of the violation of basic human rights.

The United States is the land of mass incarceration. Over 2,200,000 adults are in jail or prison at any given time in the U.S., the largest incarcerated population in the world. Not only does the U.S. lead the world in total numbers but is also one of the leading countries in terms of rate of incarceration at 698 per 100,000 in population. As a comparison, countries that we define as dictatorships or undemocratic have lower total numbers and incarceration rates. As examples, China has 1,657,812 prisoners with an incarceration rate of 119 per 100,000; Iran has 225,624 prisoners and an incarceration rate of 287 per 100,000; Russia has 649,470 prisoners and an incarceration rate (IR) of 445 per 100,000; Turkey – 165,033 and an IR of 212; India, 411,992 and IR of 33[1]; and so on.

Another area of incarceration is that of youth. The United States has over 47,000 juveniles held in correctional facilities with 69% of them being youth of color. Nearly 3 out of 4 (73%) are being held for non-violent crimes. And around 1,000 are being held in adult prisons.[2] Even though the number of incarcerated youths in the U.S. has dropped by 54% between 2001 and 2015, due to reforms passed in several states, the racial disparity of white youths to black youths increased by 22%.

Even more crucially, a 2016 report for the Sentencing Project explains that “black and white youth are roughly as likely to get into fights, carry weapons, steal property, use and sell illicit substances,” and skip school. In other words, black kids and white kids can behave in the same ways, but black kids overwhelmingly are the ones getting locked up.[3]

Most of the offenses that youth are incarcerated for would not be deemed criminal if they were committed by an adult. So called “status offenses” include curfew violation, running away from home, truancy, underage drinking and “incorrigibility.” While many of the youth who commit these offenses are given probation, this option then becomes a pathway to incarceration. Missing an appointment with a probation officer is a violation of the probation terms. Around 18% of all incarcerated youth are there for these types of technical violations.[4]

The cost for this youth incarceration is incredible. The Justice Policy Institute’s report Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration[5] revealed that the range of cost per inmate per day ranged from a low of $127.84 in Louisiana to a high of $966.220 per day in New York State, with a national average of $407.58 per inmate per day. This calculates out to an astounding $148,767 per year on average. These are paid for by tax dollars, primarily to the private prison industry. In addition, the other social costs were estimated to cost tax payers an additional $188 billion annually.[6] By contrast, the annual cost of attending Harvard or Stanford University, for everything, is around $62,500., by any standard a better investment for the future of the individual, community and nation.[7]

One last issue in incarceration is the ongoing overuse of solitary confinement, especially for person under 21 years of age. One report stated that the U.S. holds over 25,000 inmates in isolation in high security prisons.[8] This practice violates well established international human rights law. New Jersey, Delaware and New York and several other states proposed legislation that would limit or prohibit the use of solitary confinement. North Carolina banned it for persons under the age of 18

Another area of concern is that concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. 2016 saw the introduction of several bills in state legislatures that would restrict the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Since 2013, legislatures have introduced 348 bills, 23 of which became law. Since 2016, more than a third of proposed bills that limit LGBT rights were bathroom bills.[9] Many of the new bills introduced, such as Minnesota’s HF 1183, clarify that health-care providers are not required to provide gender transition care. Other bills, like Arizona Senate Bill 1191, make it more difficult for people to change their name, or they bar transgender people from changing their sex on their birth certificate.[10] These bills fly in the face of public opinion which has dramatically shifted in the last decade. Trump’s attempt to ban transgender persons from serving in the military is another example of this assault of LGBT rights.

The right to life is one of the most fundamental human rights, however in the U.S. more than 30,000 people are killed every year by gun violence. That is more than die of AIDS, and about the same number as die in car crashes or from liver disease. But unlike AIDS or car crashes, the government will not treat gun injuries or deaths as a public health threat or a human rights violation.

Among high-income countries, the United States accounts for

  • 80% of all firearm deaths
  • 86% of women killed by firearms
  • and 87% of all children up to the age of 14 who are killed by firearms[11]

Due to the overwhelming money and lobbying by the National Rifle Association and the arms industry, there does not seem to be the political will to correct this national human rights and public health issue by state or federal legislative bodies. Back in 1997, lawmakers added a provision in the bill that funds the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barring the agency from doing anything that would “advocate or promote gun control.” At the same time, they cut CDC’s budget by the exact amount it had been spending in gun violence research up until then.

So, government research into the causes of gun deaths virtually stopped.[12]

Other areas where the U.S. has serious violation of human rights are the rights of non-citizens, voter disenfranchisement, the militarization of local police departments, the death penalty, inconsistent drug policies for addicts, rights of people with disabilities, rights of people with mental illness, wage and labor rights, sexual assault in the military, and violence against women, to name a few. In addition, the creation of a “surveillance” culture since the September 11, 2001 attacks has rolled back everyone’s privacy rights and freedom of travel, whether they live in the U.S. or not. Large-scale warrantless intelligence programs continue throughout the world by U.S. agencies.

Lastly, the U.S. continues to carry out targeted killings of people all over the world without any due process of law. The use of aerial drones outside of war zones continues unabated, with severe tolls of collateral damage to innocent bystanders. Since 2009 The U.S. has killed an estimate 116 non-combatant targets by these methods. While getting exact figures on this issue is difficult, one report stated that they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of 24 November 2014.[13]

Next week we will continue our examination of U.S. democracy to see how, and if, the rule of law is applied equally to all citizens. Please join in the conversation.



[3] Ibid.



[6] Ibid.




[10] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.


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