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(Washington, DC) – The enormous prison population in the United States partly reflects harsh sentencing practices contrary to international law, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. The sentencing practices include disproportionately long prison terms, mandatory sentencing without parole, and treating youth offenders as adults. The US maintains the world’s largest incarcerated population, at 1.6 million, and its highest per capita incarceration rate.

Human Rights Watch research in 2012 found that the massive overincarceration includes a growing number of elderly people whom prisons are ill-equipped to handle, and an estimated 93,000 youth under age 18 in adult jails and another 2,200 in adult prisons. Hundreds of children are subjected to solitary confinement. Racial and ethnic minorities remain disproportionately represented in the prison population.

"The United States has shown little interest in tackling abusive practices that have contributed to the country’s huge prison population,” said Maria McFarland, deputy US program director at Human Rights Watch. "Unfortunately, it is society’s most vulnerable – racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, immigrants, children, and the elderly – who are most likely to suffer from injustices in the criminal justice system."

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Report chapter on the United States covers human rights developments related to US criminal justice and immigration, as well as issues related to health, labor, and the rights of women, children, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It also addresses abuses related to the United States’ deeply flawed counterterrorism policies.

Human rights developments within the United States over the past year include:

• Connecticut joined 16 other states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty. However, 33 states continue to allow it;

• In May, the US Department of Justice issued final standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to detect, prevent, and punish prison rape. The standards are immediately binding on all Justice Department facilities;

• In fiscal year 2012, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported a record 396,906 non-citizens. A dramatic increase in federal prosecutions of immigration violations, and in the number of immigrants in detention, has fed a nationwide detention system that includes more than 250 facilities;

• Illegal re-entry into the US has become the most prosecuted federal crime. In 2011, prosecutions for illegal entry and re-entry into the US surpassed 34,000 and 37,000 respectively. Many of those prosecuted for these crimes have minor or no criminal history and have substantial ties to the US;

• The US Senate, in December, failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Sixty-one of the 100 Senators voted in favor, but 66 votes were needed for passage. Several senators have promised to make another attempt to ratify the treaty in early 2013;

• In April, the Labor Department withdrew new regulations proposed in 2011 that would have updated, for the first time in decades, the list of hazardous agricultural tasks prohibited for children under age 16;

• Congress failed to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the primary federal law providing legal protection and services to victims of domestic and sexual violence. Sexual assaults remained underreported and poorly investigated in many jurisdictions. Certain groups, such as unauthorized migrant farmworkers, face particular challenges to seeking justice;

• In June, the US Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which significantly expands many citizens’ access to health insurance and medical care;

• HIV infections continued to disproportionately affect minority communities, men who have sex with men, and transgender women. Many states have failed to protect HIV-positive people from discrimination or to provide adequate funds for HIV prevention and care; and

• For the first time anywhere, popular votes in two states and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage. However, federal law continued to bar recognition of same-sex marriage while offering no protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Both the Obama administration and Congress supported abusive counterterrorism laws and policies, including detention without charge at Guantanamo Bay, restrictions on the transfer of detainees held there, and prosecutions in a fundamentally flawed military commission system.

Attacks by US aerial drones were carried out in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, with important legal questions about the attacks remaining unanswered.

The administration has taken no steps toward accountability for torture and other abuses committed by US officials in the so-called “war on terror,” and a Justice Department criminal investigation into detainee abuse concluded without recommending any charges. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence completed a more than 6,000-page report detailing the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program, but has yet to seek the report’s declassification so it can be released to the public.

“The Obama administration has a chance in its second term to develop with Congress a real plan for closing Guantanamo and definitively ending abusive counterterrorism practices,” McFarland said. “A failure to do so puts Obama at risk of going down in history as the president who made indefinite detention without trial a permanent part of US law.”

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