February 12, 2015

Policies on criminal justice, immigration and law student debt considered by House

At its 2015 Midyear Meeting, the American Bar Association adopted Monday a broad range of criminal justice policies and a host of others, including a measure seeking more help with student debt for young lawyers.

The meeting of the House of Delegates — made up of 560 members representing state and local bar associations, ABA entities and ABA-affiliated organizations — marked the culmination of the five-day Midyear Meeting at the Hilton Americas in Houston.

During the one-day session, the House for the first time approved policy on the stand-your-ground laws that have grown in popularity during the past 10 years. The approved resolution urges legislative bodies and governmental agencies to significantly modify or refrain from enacting laws that eliminate the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense in public places.

The issue has remained in the national forefront since the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who later was acquitted after claiming his actions were of self-defense based on an expansive Florida law. Seven different ABA entities proposed the policy after a two-year study by a task force appointed by then-President James R. Silkenat.

The task force heard testimony from 70 experts during hearings in five U.S. regions. It concluded that rather than reduce the likelihood of homicides, the rate in stand-your-ground states increased. Additionally, the task force found that when whites used this defense in homicides involving black victims they were acquitted 38 percent of the time while black defendants were successful in only 3 percent of the cases involving white victims. (112)

The House also approved a resolution that asks states that impose capital punishment through lethal injections publicly disclose the protocols — or ingredients in the solution — that are used. In the aftermath of a botched legal injection in Oklahoma in April 2014, several ABA entities asked the House to approve more disclosure about the drugs and other aspects of the execution process. With death penalty opponents pressuring drug companies into refusing to provide the necessary drugs for executions, states have resisted releasing names of the suppliers and the specific drugs. (108B).

The policy-making ABA body also weighed in on the national immigration issue, as the House voted to support government-appointed counsel for unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings. The resolution specifically urged immigration courts not to conduct hearings unless an unaccompanied minor has an opportunity to consult with counsel. (113)

Last calendar year, ProBar, an ABA program in South Texas, assisted thousands of these young undocumented immigrants in immigration hearings during the wave of foreign-born children arriving in the United States unaccompanied by their parents or other legal guardians.

At the request of the Young Lawyers Division, the House adopted a measure that asks law schools to provide law students and young lawyers comprehensive debt counseling and debt management education. The new policy also asks bar associations to offer similar debt counseling and debt management services to young lawyers and newly admitted lawyers. (106)

The Criminal Justice Section successfully proposed a resolution that urges governments to refrain from using shackles on juveniles in court, unless a judge orders it. The section argued that among peer nations the United States is the only one in which some jurisdictions or courts allow shackling of juveniles as an automatic or routine procedure. (107A)

The section also secured passage of a measure that urged governments to adopt sentencing laws and procedures that both protect public safety and appropriately recognize mitigating considerations of age and maturity of youthful offenders in cases where life without the possibility of release or parole is involved. (107C)

The ABA Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, sponsored two successful resolutions. First, the House urged governments to enact civil protection order statutes that extend protection to minor and adult victims of sexual assault, rape and stalking outside of the context of an intimate partner relationship and without the requirement of any existing relationship between the parties. (109A)

Separately, the commission won House approval for a measure that urged governments and other regulators to amend or enact laws and regulations to expand housing protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence. (109B)

Additionally, the ABA House of Delegates adopted resolutions that urge:

  • Legislative bodies to approve comprehensive laws that bar the private possession, sale, breeding, import or transfer of dangerous wild animals. (105)

  • Congress, state and tribal governments to adopt recommendations in the Indian Law and Order Commission report of November 2013, “A Roadmap for Making Native America Separate,” that enhances standards for the legal and justice systems in what is known as Indian country. (111A)

  • Governments to continue to enforce and to enact rules or legislation that strengthen consumer protections regarding deceptive or fraudulent loan foreclosure rescue practices. (111C)

  • Imposition of death-penalty sentences only by unanimous decisions by juries. Of the states, only Florida, Alabama and Delaware do not require unanimous verdicts in capital punishment cases. The resolution also covers military courts. (108A)

For information on all ABA policies considered at the House of Delegates meeting, click here.