Ongoing concerns are the incarceration rates and sentence periods for minorities, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, which are far higher and longer than those for white Americans, owing in large part to state and federal mandatory sentencing laws for drug-related offences. These, like New York States' 'Rockefeller' drug laws, invariably hurt people of lower economic status more than others. The enactment of such judicial protocol affects an even higher percentage of women of colour than men of the same racial and ethnic groups. In its March 2005 report, Caught in the Net: The Impact of Drug Policies on Women and Children, Fair Laws for Families revealed extraordinarily high rates of incarceration of women – since 1986 there has been an 800 per cent increase in the number of African-American women behind bars in state and federal prisons – damaging the lives of these women, their families and the communities from which they come. The Supreme Court judgment in Blakely v. Washington of 24 June 2004, followed by the US v. Booker and Fanfan judgment delivered 12 January 2005, questioned the constitutionality of federal mandatory sentencing laws, ultimately finding that such laws abridge sixth amendment rights (specifically trial by jury) insofar as they require judges to apply them. Immediately, thousands of defendants awaiting sentences previously governed wholly by mandatory sentencing laws benefited from the decision; although there is a caveat: sentencing within the post-Booker guidelines is often applied arbitrarily.

Disenfranchisement of minority voters continues to be a national concern. However, on 29 June 2005, Rhode Island made inroads in addressing this disparity by approving legislation that would amend the state Constitution to reinstate voting rights for parolees and probationers. On 17 June 2005, Iowa's governor issued an executive order to restore voting rights to these groups. There are now 39 states legislatively supporting the voting rights of ex-offenders. Denial of voting rights has an extremely burdensome impact on minority communities, who are represented in disproportionate numbers within the prison system in the US. The racially discriminatory effect that state disenfranchisement of ex-felons has will be challenged in March 2006, when the Eastern District Court in Washington State will hear the case of Farrakhan v. Washington. The plaintiffs argue that Washington's felony disenfranchisement statute operates with racial bias in the criminal justice system, causing 'a denial or abridgment of the right ... to vote on account of race or color'.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has published surveys indicating that educational and employment opportunities for Latinos continue to be subject to discriminatory practices. Levels of educational segregation affecting Latino children are today in some districts on a par with segregation levels of African-Americans pre-Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional the segregation of white and African-American children in public school. Several states have higher education admissions policies that place students of colour at a distinct disadvantage. Among challenges to these policies is a suit filed alleging that California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo gives undue weight to standardized test scores and geographical location. Recent suits challenging discriminatory hiring/firing practices targeting Latinos include: Gonzalez v. A.F. filed in the US District Court in San Francisco (settled 14 November 2004 for US$40 million), which alleged that, 'the "A&F Look" is designed to exclude employees of color'; and 'English Only' rules may only be enforced for non-discriminatory reasons – two US District Court suits filed by the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission concluded in 2004 that Latino workers forced to speak only in English had been discriminated against based upon their national origin.

With regard to economic, social and political gender equity, according to 2000 US Census Bureau and other data, a full-time working white American woman currently receives only 73 cents to every dollar received by a man. African-American women are paid only 65 cents for every dollar received by white men, while Hispanic women are paid only 53 cents to the dollar. Women do more than 80 per cent of unpaid family work, even though two-thirds work outside the home. Women make up less than 15 per cent of Congress and law-firm partners, 12 per cent of big-city mayors, 9 per cent of state judges and 1 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana. The devastating effects of this storm have made headline news across the world as poorer residents, overwhelmingly minority, became trapped in the rising floodwaters owing to neglectful decisions made by local, regional and national officials. Emergency plans for the below-sea-level city neglected to account for tens of thousands of people without private transportation, grossly affecting people of colour: over two-thirds of the city's residents are African-American, and one in four citizens lives in poverty. This single event has caused the greatest domestic migration crisis in America since the Civil War. It has weighed disproportionately on minorities.

Indigenous peoples

Several recent legislative and judicial developments throughout the US have touched upon issues affecting Native Americans. The Senate and House, on 15 June 2004, passed a Joint Resolution to send to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to formally apologize to the Native Americans for years of depredations. US District Judge Royce C. Lambeth, in his ruling on 12 July 2005 in Corbell v. Norton, criticized the government for failing to adequately inform Native Americans of their rights; Attorneys for the Native Americans accused the government of purposely misleading and deceiving their clients about the purpose and content of the ten-year lawsuit and failing to provide basic information about their property rights. On 9 August 2005, the 9th District Circuit Court ruled 2:1 in the Kamehameha Schools case to overturn the 117 year old precedent allowing the school to give admissions preference to Native Hawaiians. The Senate is scheduled to hear debate on the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act of 2005, which seeks to extend the federal policy of self-governance and self-determination to Native Hawaiians. Also currently under consideration is the Proposed Indian Health Care Improvement Act put forward by Senator John McCain on 18 May 2005, which seeks to extend the existing Indian Health Care Act in order to improve the provision of community and home health care, long-term care and enhancing children's health programs.

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