The Southern Center for Human Rights was founded in 1976 by ministers and activists concerned about criminal justice issues in response to the Supreme Court's reinstatement of the death penalty that year and to the horrendous conditions in Southern prisons and jails. Its creation followed the historic case of Gates v. Collier, 349 F.Supp. 881 (N.D. Miss.1972). affirmed, Gates v. Collier, 501 F.2d 1291 (5th Cir. 1974), brought in federal court in the Northern District of Mississippi, which ending egregious constitutional violations at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm). For a detailed description of the horriffic abuses at Parchman Farm, click on the two court decisions. For a description of Mississippi's use of its criminal justice system to maintain white supremacy after Emancipation through convict leasing and Parchman Farm, see David M. Oshinsky, Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (Free Press 1996).
Originally named the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, the organization's attorneys and investigators struggled alongside civil rights organizations, families, and faith-based organizations to protect the civil and human rights of people of color, poor people, and other disadvantaged people facing the death penalty or confined to prisons and jails in the South.
After the 1970s, the criminal justice system exploded in size and reach. After holding steady for 150 years, the number of people imprisoned in the United States increased from around 200,000 to over 2 million. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world.
In addition to providing representation to people facing the death penalty, the Center employs class action lawsuits and individual representation in challenging unconstitutional and unconscionable practices within the criminal justice system. It also engages in public education and joint efforts with other organizations and individuals to oppose the death penalty and overuse of prisons and jails, to advocate for effective representation for poor people accused of crimes, just and humane sentencing policies and the fair, equal, and humane treatment of all people who come into the criminal justice system.
The Southern Center has represented hundreds of people facing the death penalty, winning reversals and establishing precedents on appeals, obtaining life verdicts at trials, and standing by clients and their families and bearing witness at executions. The Center has also provided training and counsel to lawyers representing people facing the death penalty throughout the country. The Center's staff also publishes articles on capital punishment, testifies before Congressional and legislative committees, and educates the public and the media about the death penalty.
The Center has won three cases before the United States Supreme Court by showing racial discrimination at capital trials - Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008) (hear oral argument); Ford v. Georgia, 498 U.S. 411 (1991), and Amadeo v. Zant, 486 U.S. 214 (1988) (hear oral argument). None of the three were sentenced to death after there convictions and sentences were reversed by the Court.
The Center's lawyers have also represented those sentenced to death before the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Fourth, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, as well as the Supreme Courts of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi and in the trial courts in the southern states. They obtained the freedom of Gary Drinkard, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Alabama, won new trials and new sentencings for scores of people who had been condemned to die, and persuaded juries to spare the lives of people who had previously been sentenced to death.
The Center has won court orders requiring county, state, and federal governments to end egregious human rights abuses in jails and prisons throughout the South. The Center has focused its efforts where the need was the greatest and there was no one else to take on the human rights violations. One lawsuit resulted in changes in all 27 of South Carolina's prisons. Another reduced the extreme overcrowding and decreased the level of violence for the 1600 women incarcerated in Alabama's prison system.
Other lawsuits improved care for HIV-positive people incarcerated at various jails and prisons, cutting the death rate by 75% at Limestone Prison in Alabama, and by over 80% in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. A case against the federal Bureau of Prisons stopped the barbaric practice of strapping men down in 4-point restraints for days at a time.
The Supreme Court has held that a poor person accused of a crime is entitled to the “guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.” Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 355, 344-45 (1963). But Gideon's constitutional mandate – which is essential to a fair trial – has been resisted and ignored in many parts of the country, particularly in the Deep South.
The Center has brought attention to the deficiencies in legal representation to the poor to light in articles and reports, testimony to committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and state legislatues, and in appearances before various audiences and the media. The Center has also challenged deficient representation on behalf of those who have been denied it and brought lawsuits seeking to correct systemic deficiencies.
The Center's five-year effort to bring about creation of a public defender system in Georgia included six lawsuits, two reports, extensive documentation of the deficiencies of the representation or lack of representation provided by each of Georgia's 159 counties, and work with legislators, bar associations, and others.
In 2003, the Georgia legislature passed an Indigent Defense Act that replaced the broken non-system of 159 different county programs with a comprehensive, state-wide public defender system. Unfortunately, the system has not been adequately funded and properly managed and, as a result, the Center continues to bring lawsuits to address people accused of crimes, including those facing the death penalty, not being provided with attorneys for their trials or appeals or unconscionable delays in providing attorneys, investigators and experts necessary for the defense of cases.
The Center has won court orders requiring officials in the criminal justice system to stop illegal, unconstitutional, and inhumane practices. In Gulfport, Mississippi, deputies no longer conduct sweeps of poor neighborhoods, arresting people for being behind on their fines. In Clinch County, Georgia, the sheriff no longer charges people – including those who are found not guilty or whose charges are dismissed – a room & board fee for being incarcerated in the county jail. In Atlanta, people arrested for petty crimes no longer sit in jail for 4 or 5 days for paperwork to clear after being ordered release.
The Center's work has helped reframe the debate about crime and punishment in a way that reduces the incentives for politicians to exploit crime and violence for political gain. In the dozens of counties where SCHR has litigated against jail overcrowding, county commissioners talk explicitly about the need to fund schools and drug treatment rather than jails. In Alabama, the financial stress caused by SCHR's cases has resulted in legislators advocating for "smart on crime" policies to replace "tough on crime" laws. The discussion around the death penalty now includes discussion about the arbitrariness of who receives this ultimate penalty and the problems of innocence.