The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has launched several major investigations under President Joe Biden, an aggressive start after years of neglect during the Trump-era.
In the early months of the administration, the department announced investigations into three major police departments – a 180-degree turn from the last administration, which was highly skeptical of such systemic reviews. The Biden Justice Department has also launched an investigation into Georgia’s prison system for alleged civil rights violations.
The most recent, publicly announced investigation was launched in Texas, where five juvenile detention facilities are being examined for systemic physical or sexual abuse of children.
Kristen Clarke, Biden’s civil rights chief, highlighted the racial disparities in juvenile detention systems.
“Nationally, Black children are over four times more likely to be incarcerated than White children,” Clarke said last Wednesday. “And the disparity is even greater in Texas, where Black children are over five times more likely to be incarcerated.”
The moves showcase the reorientation of priorities now that a Democratic administration – with several Justice Department leaders with deep backgrounds in civil rights – is in charge.
The boldest of these moves is, perhaps, a review of DOJ police funding that was announced last month. The review relies on a piece of civil rights law known as Title VI, that is often described as the sleeping giant of civil rights law, Bill Yeomans, a former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights told CNN.
“It can be incredibly powerful and it’s been underutilized,” said Yeomans, now a lecturer at Columbia Law School.
He and other former DOJ officials told CNN that, under past Democratic administrations, embracing the tool as leverage for civil rights compliance had been discussed but never executed. The review will evaluate how the department is meeting its obligations, under Title VI, to “ensure that public funds are not furthering race discrimination,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said last month during an event at the Texas Tribune Festival.
Gupta, who led the civil rights division under President Barack Obama, is now the No. 3 leader at the department, a role that gives her oversight of not just of the civil rights division, but other influential parts of the agency, including the civil division and the police grant-making process.
“The kind of vantage point that I have over the department is different and unique,” Gupta said at the Texas Tribune Festival.
“These are big, big shifts that we’re seeing,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told CNN. “I don’t think there’s ever been a Title VI comprehensive review by the Department of Justice.”