Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Mr. Chairperson, distinguished Members of the committee, and representatives of civil society. My name is Mark Kappelhoff and I serve as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is an honor to be a member of the U.S. delegation and to share with you some of the Justice Department’s work to address racial discrimination and to fulfill our obligations under the convention.
Since our founding, the people of the United States have strived to realize our Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice for all. Last month, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark law that relegated the age of legal segregation to the history books. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said, the act’s purpose was to ensure that all people are “equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.”
Our nation has made great progress over the last five decades, but the journey is not yet complete. Our dialogue with this committee allows us to reflect on the great advances we have made as a nation to realize equality and to express our commitment to address the challenges that remain. Three basic principles guide the Justice Department’s work in realizing the noble goals of our Constitution and laws: expanding opportunity for all; safeguarding the infrastructure of our democracy; and protecting the most vulnerable among us. Our ceaseless efforts to advance these principles directly enhance our country’s implementation of its convention obligations.
The right to vote is one of the most fundamental promises of our democracy. Among our highest priorities is ensuring equal access to the ballot box, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been our most powerful tool in this effort. While the U.S. Supreme Court recently invalidated a part of this cornerstone civil rights law, we continue to use every legal tool available to take swift action against jurisdictions that have hindered equal access to the franchise. For example, the Civil Rights Division is currently challenging discriminatory state election laws in North Carolina and Texas. Attorney General Holder also is taking steps to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives have meaningful access to the polls.
The division continues its work to dismantle racial discrimination in our nation’s schools to ensure that school districts fulfill their legal obligation to provide equal educational opportunity for all students. We also have targeted racial disparities in school discipline in an effort to end the “school to prison pipeline.” Working with our partners at the Department of Education, we issued guidance to inform schools nationwide of their responsibility to establish nondiscriminatory policies and practices aimed at keeping young people in the classroom and out of the criminal justice system. This is just one of many examples the committee will hear during our dialogue of how federal agencies work with state and local officials to advance our implementation of the convention.
The Civil Rights Division and our federal partner agencies continue to handle a large volume of housing and employment discrimination complaints. This is a stark reminder that, despite the end to legal segregation, our work to combat unfair treatment must persist. Our robust enforcement efforts have produced tangible results for people’s lives. Just a few months ago, we obtained our largest-ever settlement in an employment discrimination case involving the discriminatory hiring practices of the New York City Fire Department, which brought jobs to some 290 eligible claimants and $98 million in monetary damages. And, in 2013, the division collected record civil penalties in resolving employment claims based on citizenship status or national origin under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The division responded forcefully to the housing and foreclosure crisis in the U.S., which hit African-American and Latino families especially hard. They paid more for loans because of their race or national origin, or were steered to more expensive and riskier subprime loans. Consistent with our convention obligations, the U.S. brought legal action to remedy these abuses, which has resulted in the three largest residential lending discrimination settlements in the Justice Department’s history.
We know that law enforcement is dangerous work and most officers are dedicated public servants. With this in mind, the division has worked hard to produce sustainable models for effective, nondiscriminatory and constitutional policing and prison systems. Over the last five years, we have achieved 14 ground-breaking reform agreements with police departments all across the United States to address excessive use of force and racial profiling. We also criminally prosecuted 337 officers for misconduct. And we are working to improve conditions in America’s prisons — examining, for example, the overuse of solitary confinement—and to safeguard the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system.
The Justice Department also is aggressively prosecuting hate crimes. As a long-time federal prosecutor, I can tell you first-hand that the devastation caused by a single act of hate can reverberate through families, communities and the entire nation. No one should have to sleep less easily at night or live in fear that they too might be attacked simply because of their skin color, the country they were born in, their faith or whom they love.
In 2009, we gained a powerful prosecution tool to combat hate crimes when President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Armed with this new tool, Justice Department prosecutors over the last five years have convicted over 160 defendants on hate crimes charges – amounting to nearly a 50 percent increase over the previous five years.
I have described for you just some of the Justice Department’s work advancing the promise in America’s founding documents of equality under the law. We are proud to stand with our fellow agencies in our collective responsibility to fulfill our nation’s obligations under the convention, as well in our shared moral responsibility to eradicate discrimination and ensure equal justice for all.
It is my pleasure now to introduce our next speaker, Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.