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Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Johnathan Smith for Civil Rights Division Delivers Opening Statement at Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination



Madame Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee, and representatives of civil society. My name is Johnathan Smith and I serve as an Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. I am honored to discuss the Department’s work to address racial discrimination, fully realize the democratic values that define our political system and fulfill our obligations under the Convention.  

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has identified civil rights, including expanding equal access to justice, one of the Department’s top priorities. We are using every tool in our arsenal to challenge acts of hate and discrimination, and to reform systems that perpetuate racial injustice and inequality.

Every day, we are working to protect and promote the foundational right to vote. Last year the Attorney General doubled the department’s voting enforcement staff. In the last several months alone, we have challenged restrictive voting laws, discriminatory redistricting plans, and other barriers across the country, including in Georgia, Texas and Arizona. 

Every day, we are fighting for economic and racial justice by enforcing laws that protect fair housing, equal employment, and educational opportunities. Last year, the Department launched a new initiative to combat redlining and lending discrimination. A few months ago, we created an Office of Environmental Justice to better protect communities that suffer because of pollution and climate change, many of which are communities of color and Tribal and Indigenous communities.

And every day, we are seeking to reform the criminal justice system. Since 2021, we have opened several pattern-or-practice investigations addressing allegations of racial discrimination, abuse of power, and systemic misconduct by law enforcement agencies. We have also charged law enforcement officers who willfully deprived persons of federal rights. Recently, we secured convictions against all four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd. 

We are also combatting unlawful acts of hate. This year, we secured hate crimes convictions for the  killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man who was tragically targeted and killed while jogging near his home in Georgia. But  prosecutions alone will not stop the spread of hate. That’s why we are also working to build trust between law enforcement and communities they serve, increasing reporting of hate crimes and supporting public safety solutions. To this end, we award approximately $4 billion annually to organizations providing reentry services, community violence interventions, diversion, services for victims and law enforcement training. 

In addition, Attorney General Garland reestablished the Office for Access to Justice. Director Rachel Rossi is here as part of our delegation. Her office leads initiatives to increase access to legal systems, ensure their fairness and integrity and deliver innovative solutions. This includes improving legal representation for the accused in criminal matters, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, and identifying causes and solutions for that overrepresentation.

Moreover, we are addressing unlawful conditions for those — disproportionately people of color — incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons. Michelle Morales from the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is here as part of our delegation. We continue to make progress addressing racial disparities in sentencing and corrections. For example, recent federal legislation has reduced mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses and retroactively reduced sentences for crack cocaine offenses. The legislation also helped incarcerated persons prepare to return to the community. Today, the federal prison population is at its lowest level since 2000 and racial sentencing disparities have fallen. 

While we face ongoing challenges, the Justice Department is committed to promoting civil rights and pursuing justice and equality for all.

Civil Rights
Updated August 11, 2022