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US Coalition, Including Stern Community Lawyering Clinic, Submit Human Rights Complaint to the UN Regarding Death by Incarceration

Drexel University Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Parternship exterior sign and building facade Drexel Kline School of Law’s Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic provides free legal services and advocacy for West Philadelphia residents and is located in the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.

September 15, 2022

On September 15, a U.S. coalition that includes Drexel University Kline School of Law’s Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic (SCLC) submitted a complaint to United Nations experts alleging that the United States is committing torture and violating other international human rights obligations, including the prohibition on racial discrimination, by condemning people to death by incarceration (DBI) through extreme sentences such as life and life without parole.

The organizations urge the U.N. to call for the abolition of all DBI sentences. The complaint describes how the U.S. has become a global outlier in its imposition of DBI and includes an appendix with extensive testimony from people across the U.S. who are incarcerated under DBI sentences.

“Motivated by policies based on retribution and punishment, the U.S. incarcerates over 200,000 people nationwide with sentences that condemn them to die in prison and deprive them of their right to hope, redemption, and rehabilitation,” said Rachel E. López, associate professor of law and director of the SCLC. “Under international law, this amounts to torture, racial discrimination, and arbitrary deprivation of life and liberty.”

Along with the SCLC, the organizations listed below contributed to the complaint, which was submitted to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on racial discrimination; the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture; the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the U.N. Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent; and the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In the News

The Nation published an article about the complaint and mentions the SCLC.

The Guardian published a story about the coalition’s complaint that prominently features Terrell Carter, co-author of “Redeeming Justice” (Northwestern University Law Review, 2021) with López and Kempis “Ghani” Songster.

Carter was released from prison in July 2022 with support from the SCLC, which provides free legal services and advocacy to West Philadelphia residents, after his life sentence was commuted by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.

The “Redeeming Justice” authors assert that the legal right to redemption is embedded in the Eighth Amendment through the concept of human dignity and, therefore, all prison sentences should be reviewable.