Smoke trails tear gas canisters fired into the air after protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown turned violent near Ferguson, Missouri on August 17, 2014.

© 2014 Human Rights Watch

Two important US government reports released this week, both prompted by the events in Ferguson, Missouri last August, begin to tackle the deeply rooted problem of racial discrimination in the US criminal justice system.

One of them, the summary findings of a six-month-old Department of Justice investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department, charges that Ferguson police have for years “routinely violated the constitutional rights of the city’s black residents,” via the use of excessive force and unwarranted traffic stops. The Department of Justice is expected to release its full findings today.

The other is an interim report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which deals more broadly with law enforcement across the nation. That report also recognizes the need to address racially discriminatory policies, and makes clear that Ferguson is far from being the only jurisdiction in the country where criminal justice policies are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans. 

Although white and black people in the US report using drugs at similar rates, African Americans nationally are arrested on drug charges at more than three times the rate for whites and are sent to prison for drug convictions at 10 times the white rate. African Americans convicted of capital offenses are also much more likely to be sentenced to death than white Americans charged with capital offenses. 

The US is a party to a treaty, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, that prohibits any race-based distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference that has “the purpose or effect” of curtailing human rights and fundamental freedoms. In other words, even policies and practices that are not intended to discriminate can still be discriminatory in effect. Sadly, the evidence is clear that racial discrimination is alive and well in the US criminal justice system. 

One of the recommendations of Obama’s Task Force was that “[l]aw enforcement agencies should adopt and enforce policies prohibiting profiling and discrimination based on race” and other factors. Given the Justice Department’s findings in Ferguson, and the long legacy of racism in the US criminal justice system, an emphasis on eliminating racially discriminatory policing practices is long overdue, and would go a long way toward repairing badly frayed relationships between police departments and the communities they protect.