Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in the US prison system – which still has the world’s largest population of 2 297 400 inmates, according to the latest figures from June 2009 – black non-Hispanic males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white non-Hispanic males.
The disparity “cannot be accounted for solely by differences in criminal conduct”, said HRW in its 2011 World Report.
In 2009, one in 10 black males aged 25-29 were in prison, and for Hispanic males the figure was one in 25 – for white males the figure was one in 64.
HRW also highlighted a number of positive moves in the United States to address racial disparities, noting including a new law that promises to reduce in the sentencing of cocaine offenders.
“US citizens enjoy a broad range of civil liberties and have recourse to a strong system of independent federal and state courts, but continuing failures – notably in the criminal justice and immigration systems and in counterterrorism law and policy – mar its human rights record,” said HRW.
Despite promises from the White House to address such failures, “progress has been slow; in some areas it has been nonexistent”.
The US record on human rights was notably marred by the failure of President Barack Obama’s administration to carry out its pledge to close the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for those suspected of plotting terror attacks.
The administration’s “continued invocation of an overly broad understanding of the ‘state secrets’ privilege was accepted by several courts, cutting off another possible avenue for redress for victims of torture and other abuses”, it said.
The group also criticised the transfer of some Guantanamo detainees to countries where they could face torture or ill treatment, including one sent to Algeria.
It said Washington relied on “non-binding and often unreliable promises from the receiving country that detainees would be treated humanely”.
HRW meanwhile slammed the White House for the failure to establish a commission of inquiry for abuses under the former president George W Bush.
“Despite overwhelming evidence that senior Bush administration officials approved illegal interrogation methods involving torture and other ill-treatment, the Obama administration has yet to pursue prosecutions,” said the report.Other US shortcomings in human rights is the use of the death penalty, which is in effect in 35 states, and the incarceration of youth offenders.
Around 2 574 youth offenders – under age 18 at the time they committed their offense – are serving life without parole in US prisons, said the report, noting that there are “no known youth offenders serving the sentence anywhere else in the world”.
HRW described a “positive” move in 2010 when the US Supreme Court effectively abolished the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes.
Other US rights activists have however pointed out that since that ruling, courts have, instead of handing down “life” sentences to offending youth, given long, sometimes 100-year prison sentences – effectively the same punishment.
In other areas, the report said the US fails to enforce child labour standards in agriculture.
“As a result, child farm workers, most of whom are Latino, often work 10 or more hours a day and risk pesticide poisoning, heat illness, injuries, and life-long disabilities,” it said.