Opinions and Legal Insights

How Washington Exports Failed Criminal Justice Policies

In a border town in Mexico not long ago, 16-year-old Pablo[1] was arrested in his home while his mother slept upstairs. He knew nothing of the car the police said he stole.  He thought it was a joke at first. But when he was brought to the detention center, he knew it was deadly serious.

The director of the center brought Pablo into his office, where a newly framed American Correctional Association accreditation hung, and he beat Pablo.

Pablo spent five months in that hell—one of the U.S. criminal justice-modernization success stories—before his parents could pay off the victims for a car that Pablo never stole.

The murder of George Floyd sparked a global protest movement for #BlackLivesMatter, to #DefundPolice and #DefundPrisons. The U.S. locks up more men, women and children than any other nation, has created policestates in many poor and minority communities, has distorted its criminal justice procedures to ignore police and prosecutorial misconduct and created an assembly line court system where justice depends upon ability to pay.

Communities of color, especially black communities are disproportionately impacted.

But this racist system has not been confined to U.S. borders.[2]

Before the Black Lives Matter protests triggered similar manifestations of anger in many nations, the U.S. had already spent decades spreading its criminal justice philosophy around the word. Many countries look to the U.S. as a leader in police, court and prison policies. [3] ]

U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent to perpetuate and replicate the U.S. criminal justice model.

Men, women, and children – overwhelmingly nonviolent offenders – are arrested and abused by U.S.-trained police, interrogated and tortured by U.S.-trained prosecutors, convicted and sentenced under U.S.-supported drug-war laws, and imprisoned in U.S.-accredited prisons.

A few examples include:

      • With U.S. financial support, the American Correctional Association (ACA) has accredited prisons in Mexico, Columbia and the United Arab Emirates. Many of these facilities have documented histories of grave human rights abuses, systemic child abuse and cartel infiltration despite accreditation and re-accreditation by the ACA.[4]
      • U.S. police officers with documented histories of misconduct are hired by the U.S. State Department and sent to developing countries to train police units.[5]
      • U.S.-backed plea-bargaining reforms have proliferated across the globe, endangering defendants’ rights to a trial and incentivizing excessive bail and pretrial detention.[6]
      • Drug war policies have led to the dramatic growth of incarceration in Latin America, particularly of women.[7]

There is often an assumption that U.S. practices and policies represent a “higher standard,” are “more modern” and “more professional.” This, despite the fact that the U.S. is not a party to international human rights treaties that limit criminal justice abuses (treaties that nearly all foreign countries are parties to).

Security, not human rights or community safety, is the exclusive priority of the U.S. criminal justice foreign investments.

If the U.S. government, now or under future administrations, is serious about criminal justice reform, then it must include all communities impacted by U.S.-influenced criminal justice policies. It must include local and national authorities in foreign countries and U.S. agencies that oversee projects, trainings, and international exchanges with criminal justice personnel.

It must focus on police demilitarization and community safety, de-incarceration and social reintegration of prisoners, access to justice and limits on plea bargaining, and the ratification of human rights treaties.

Federal government criminal justice reform cannot be left to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division only, but must include the U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs.

doug keillor

Douglas Keillor

Our racist criminal justice system is hurting communities across the U.S, from Ferguson, and Baltimore to Cleveland and Minneapolis. But not only in the U.S.

In Mexico City, Ciudad Juarez, Medellin, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Manila and hundreds of small towns and cities across the world suffer the impacts of U.S.-backed policies that perpetuate criminal justice abuses.

Black Lives Matter whether they are U.S. citizens or not.

Douglas Keillor is a human rights attorney and founder of Juvenile Justice Advocates International, a Mexico City-based advocacy organization fighting to reduce  youth incarceration in Latin America. He welcomes readers’ comments.

[1] Pablo’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/yes-american-police-act-like-occupying-armies-they-literally-studied-their-tactics

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/us-world-prisons-supermax-incarceration/408067/

[4]http://www.aca.org/ACA_Prod_IMIS/ACA_Member/Standards_and_Accreditation/SAC_AccFacHome.aspx?WebsiteKey=139f6b09-e150-4c56-9c66-284b92f21e51&hkey=f53cf206-2285-490e-98b7-66b5ecf4927a&CCO=2#CCO; https://www.mexicoevalua.org/mexicoevalua/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/privatizacion-sistema-penitenciario.pdf (citing human rights abuses in ACA-accredited facilities in Mexico); https://www.proceso.com.mx/437104/ong-piden-a-la-cidh-evaluar-impacto-la-privatizacion-prisiones-mexicanas (report on evaluation at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of prison privatization in Mexico); https://www.publimetro.com.mx/mx/noticias/2016/07/14/penal-altiplano-pierde-acreditacion-eu-nivel-seguridad.html.

[5] https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/itta-police-training-el-salvador/Content?oid=77893497

[6] https://www.fairtrials.org/campaign/disappearing-trial; https://www.fairtrials.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/Report-The-Disappearing-Trial.pdf

[7] https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-human-rights-consequences-of-the-war-on-drugs-in-the-philippines/; http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1563/latin-americas-female-prisoner-problem-how-the-war-on-drugs-feminization-of-poverty-and-female-liberation-contribute-to-mass-incarceration-of-women