WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke released the following statement in response to President Obama’s final State of the Union Address:
“Tonight, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union speech highlighting the need to fight for voting rights reform, greater educational opportunities and bipartisan criminal justice reform,” stated Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke. “President Obama seized on many core civil rights issues that are central to the Lawyers’ Committee’s ongoing work to promote racial justice and equal opportunity across our nation. We look forward to achieving long-sought progress in all of these areas throughout 2016.”
Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform
The Lawyers’ Committee applauds President Obama for leading his State of the Union address with a reference to the need for bipartisan criminal justice reform. The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to comprehensive reform of our nation’s criminal justice system and addressing the impact of mass incarceration. Racial disparities persist at every level of the criminal justice system. The Lawyers’ Committee fully supports the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, S. 2123, passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee this fall and a similar bill reforming federal sentencing laws that passed the House Judiciary Committee in November.
“President Obama’s optimism about bipartisan criminal justice reform is encouraging,” said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke. “We must go even further. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, yet houses more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners, many of them African American and Latino. More work is necessary to achieve meaningful policing reforms and to fully address the barriers to reentry faced by people with criminal backgrounds seeking to reintegrate back into their communities.”
The Lawyers’ Committee applauds President Obama for highlighting the importance of ensuring that everyone has access to the ballot box by putting in place reforms that make voting easier and not harder. President Obama noted: “We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.” President Obama also cautioned against rolling back the “equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure.” Fighting for same day registration, early voting opportunities and working to restore the important protections of the Voting Rights Act have been central features of the work of the Lawyers’ Committee. The Lawyers’ Committee looks forward to continued litigation and advocacy efforts aimed at ensuring that all eligible voters are able to participate in our democracy.
President Obama also highlighted other important reforms such as independent redistricting and noted the need “to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” President Obama also noted the need to “reduce the influence of money in our politics.” The Lawyers’ Committee applauds efforts to help ensure a fair redistricting process and efforts to limit the impact of money in politics. “We must also work to protect voting rights during the first presidential election cycle in 50 years that will be conducted without the important protections that have long been provided by the Voting Rights Act,” said Clarke.
The President highlighted improvements in high school graduation rates, noting the need to “make college more affordable for every American” and advocated for universal pre-K. President Obama also highlighted efforts that have “lifted high school graduation rates to new highs.”
While graduation rates have continued to rise with 82.3 percent of high school seniors across the nation graduating during the 2013-14 school year, significant racial disparities remain. Only 72.5 percent of African American and 76.3 percent of Latino students graduated in 2013-14, compared to 87.2 percent of their white counterparts. The Lawyers’ Committee is working to address the school to prison pipeline and other barriers to equal educational opportunity across the country. “We must address the lack of equal educational opportunities and discriminatory school discipline policies that pervade countless school districts across our country,” said Clarke.