Federal Enforcement of Civil Rights Laws Has Declined

The government’s enforcement of civil rights laws has declined sharply since 1999 even though the level of complaints received by the Justice Department has remained relatively constant, according a study released last month.

Although the number of complaints about possible violations received by the Justice Department has remained level at about 12,000 annually for each of the past five years, the study suggests that t is unlikely that the decline has occurred because fewer civil rights violations are occurring.

Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 159 defendants for violations of civil rights laws in 1999.  By 2003, the number had dropped to 84, according to the study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a non-partisan research center at Syracuse University in New York.

The charges include abusive police tactics, racial violence, slavery or involuntary servitude, and blocked access to clinics.  In addition, the study found that the number of times the FBI or other federal investigative agency recommended prosecution in civil rights cases has fallen by more than one-third, from more than 3,000 in 1999 to just more than 1,900 last year. Federal court data also shows the government has sought fewer civil sanctions against civil rights violators.

The study’s co-author, David Burnham of TRAC, said the results show that civil rights enforcement dropped across-the-board during President Bush’s first term in office. The Justice Department enforces a wide range of civil rights laws ranging from guaranteeing fair housing access to prosecuting hate crimes.

"Collectively, some violators of the civil rights laws are not being dealt with by the government," Burnham said. "They’ve declined by a huge number of cases. This trend, we think, is significant."

Students feel that the report was not surprising.

“With Bush as President I’m surprised they’re investigating as many [civil rights violations] as they are now.  I think the government is too worried about the civil rights of the people of Iraq to worry about our civil rights,” said Chartise Woodson, a junior political science major at HowardUniversity.

During this same time, charges against terrorism suspects increased dramatically and charges on weapons violations doubled. In addition, federal charges on immigration violations increased more than 28 percent, according to the study.

"This confirms what everyone in the civil rights community has known for the past four years, which is that President Bush’s Justice Department does not have a commitment to full enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws," said Christopher Anders, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Anders also said that the Bush civil rights record is worse than that of previous Republican presidents, including President Reagan and the first President Bush.

Justice Department officials did not return several phone calls for comment.       

During his bid for re-election, Bush told the annual meeting of the National Urban League, a non-profit that seeks economic parity and civil rights for African Americans, that the administration has vigorously enforced civil rights laws.  Campaign officials repeated the statement various times.

The Syracuse study also found that some of the decline in pursuing civil rights cases has to do with prosecutorial discretion.  In 2003, prosecutors filed formal charges in only 5 percent of civil rights cases referred to them. By contrast, they chose to pursue formal charges in 90 percent of referred immigration cases.

The main reasons cited not to pursue the civil rights cases included lack of evidence of criminal intent, no federal offense evident, no known suspect and "declined per instructions from the Department of Justice."

“Civil rights have always been something that is hard to prosecute due to the lack of evidence in many cases; sometimes people can’t prove that their rights have been violated,” said Eric Thompson, a HowardUniversity junior political science major.

The study includes data from various sources, including Justice Department files, annual reports to Congress, and publications from U.S. courts.  Some of the material was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The study also found that, civil sanctions against civil rights violators have also declined, from 740 in 2001 to 576 in 2003. Civil suits can involve voting rights violations, employment and housing discrimination and other matters.

In addition, the Justice Department’s referrals for prosecution in civil rights cases also dropped under the Bush administration, from 3,053 in 1999 to 1,903 in 2003. From 1999 to 2003, the number of people charged by the Justice Department with terrorism-related offenses increased from 99 to 899 and the number of people charged with weapons violations more than doubled, from about 4,900 to more than 10,000. The number of people charged with immigration violations increased from 16,219 to 20,833 during the same period.

Civil rights cases have always been rare. During the last five years, the United States prosecuted more than 450,000 people on various charges. Only a small fraction of those, about one in 1,000, was aimed at civil rights violators. By comparison, about 600 of every 1,000 involved drugs, weapons and immigration.

The TRAC report gives no conclusive reasons for the reduction in civil rights enforcement but speculates that it could have resulted from federal prosecutors and investigators having spent far more time than in previous years on terrorism cases in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.