Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute Symposium Explores the Criminalization of Poverty and Efforts to Secure Fundamental Human Rights in the United States 

May 9, 2019, NEW YORK – On April 12th, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI) gathered over 100 lawyers, organizers, and government representatives from across the United States to strategize how to address laws and policies that perpetuate poverty and articulate a positive vision for change. The full-day event marked the 16th symposium on human rights in the United States, a signature event of HRI’s Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network.

“Criminalization and penalization of poverty have long been concerns of U.S. advocates seeking to ensure basic needs are met for all,” explained JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at HRI. “US advocates must work collectively to develop affirmative approaches to ensuring an adequate standard of living for all in this climate that is increasingly hostile to human rights.”

The Continuing Legal Education (CLE) symposium provides a unique forum for lawyers and advocates to identify effective avenues for positive change and opportunities for collaboration, and included speakers from Bronx Defenders, the ACLU, the Water Protector’s Collective, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, and Amnesty International, among others.

The program featured panels addressing the right to housing, leveraging human rights standards and strategies to ensure fulfillment of basic needs, including water, sanitation, and a healthy environment, and strategies to respect and promote health and well-being of pregnant people and mothers. Local, national, and international perspectives informed every session, and key themes were how criminalization exacerbates the negative impacts of poverty and leads to disparities across a range of social indicators, as well as the ways in which punitive approaches destabilize families and communities.

The session on advancing the right to housing highlighted how local and national organizations have used human rights standards to strengthen federal and local policy and movement-building, as well as how engagement with UN treaty bodies and independent experts has been used to move the needle in litigation. Pete White, Executive Director and Founder of LA CAN, called on participants “to find new north stars and imagine bigger and bolder [changes],” while sharing strategies to address the housing crisis in the city of Los Angeles.

The second session focused on what is necessary to ensure an adequate standard of living, and also how principles of equality and non-discrimination are vital to making this a reality. Speakers described the importance of claiming fundamental rights regardless of what domestic law
provides, drawing from examples of criminalization of indigenous protests at Standing Rock, efforts to address bias policing, and environmental justice work. Panelists shared human rights strategies, including engagement with UN special procedures, as pathways to raise the visibility of key community concerns, forge partnerships, and center the perspective of communities most impacted by rights violations in developing solutions.

During the final panel, speakers explored how human rights principles inform their work to promote the rights of pregnant people and families, including in individual litigation in family courts, policy development, and global advocacy with UN treaty bodies. The discussion emphasized how laws that criminalize and penalize poverty impact American women differently on the basis of their multifaceted identities, including socio-economic status and race.

“Across the country, women have been prosecuted for ending, allegedly causing harm, or merely risking harm, to their own pregnancies. Punitive child welfare practices further undermine rights to health and privacy for families,” said Farah Diaz Tello of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. “Existing laws and enforcement schemes violate rights to equality and autonomy, and undermine public health.” 

Nationally recognized human rights lawyer, advocate, and researcher Andrea Ritchie discussed the structural factors, including stereotypes, ideologies, and discriminatory law and policy that drive criminalization, as well as their far reaching impacts into all aspects of life. Ritchie emphasized the disparate impact of existing approaches on individuals historically marginalized due to gender, gender identity, race, disability, and sexual orientation, among other factors, and offered recommendations on how to disrupt criminalization and advance policies that eliminate, rather than perpetuate, harms.

Throughout the day’s programs, speakers focused on the need for bolder actions and intersectional analyses and solutions. Panelists expressed hope through examples of powerful moments of change, and reflected on the need for greater collaboration between lawyers and grassroots advocates to continue to build successful examples of human rights implementation locally, nationally, and globally.

The Securing Basic Human Rights and Challenging the Criminalization of Poverty CLE Symposium was co-sponsored by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Northeaster Law School Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, the U.S. Human Rights Network, the NYU School of Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund & Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and was hosted by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. 

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The Human Rights Institute advances international human rights through education, advocacy, fact-finding, research, scholarship, and critical reflection. We work in partnership with advocates, communities, and organizations pushing for social change to develop and strengthen the human rights legal framework and mechanisms, promote justice and accountability for human rights violations, and build and amplify collective power.

Founded in 1998 by the late Professor Louis Henkin as the anchor for human rights within Columbia Law School, the Human Rights Institute promotes engagement and knowledge of human rights within the law school, throughout the University, and around world. Across the many substantive areas of its work, the Institute builds bridges between scholarship and activism, develops capacity within the legal community, engages governments, and models new strategies for progress.

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