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(en) US, A Million Blacks Behind Bars--and Still Counting

From Rene Ciria-Cruz <reneccruz@pacificnews.org>
Date Mon, 13 Mar 2000 03:27:06 -0500

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

[EDITOR'S NOTE: African-Americans now make up more than half
of the prison population. The reason, goes the habitual
explanation, is that blacks are "poor, crime-prone and lack
family values." The more compelling reason, however, can be
summed up in four words: racially biased drug laws.]

A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, a
Washington D.C. public policy think tank, that more than two
million persons are now behind bars in America got little
media attention. And with good reason. The numbers are
embarrassing and disgraceful and proof that politicians and
the much of the public see incarceration as the only answer
to the nation's social ills. But what got no media attention
is that African-Americans now make up more than half of
those imprisoned. While the chance of a white male being
locked up is 1 in 25, for black males the odds soar to 1 in
3. Six of the ten states that have the greatest number of
prisoners are states in the Deep South. They also have the
highest percentage of blacks in their population. The ten
states that imprison the fewest persons have the sparsest
numbers of blacks.

The social and political havoc that putting one in three
black men in prison wreaks on black families and communities
is staggering. It insures that more children are raised in
impoverished single-female led homes. They will likely
attend segregated, crumbling public schools. It permanently
bars many black men from voting because of draconian laws
that severely restrict the rights of ex-convicts to vote.
This diminishes the political power of the black
communities. It drastically increases health risks and costs
in black communities since many prisoners are released with
chronic medical afflictions particularly HIV/AIDS. The
habitual reasons given for criminalizing practically an
entire generation of young blacks is that they are poor,
crime-prone, and lack family values.

The more compelling reason can be summed up in four words:
racially-biased drug laws. Many law enforcement and
politicians argue that the laws arent biased. But what else
can they be called when reports and studies by the Justice
Department, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as well as
universities and foundations confirm that:

o Far more whites use and deal drugs including crack cocaine
  than blacks.

o The overwhelming majority of those prosecuted in federal
  courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts
  of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences of
  ten years to life are African-American.

o Only five percent of those sentenced to jail terms are
  major dealers.

o There is a massive and deep disparity in how blacks (crack
  cocaine) and whites (powdered cocaine) are being sentenced
  by the federal and state courts.

The scapegoating of blacks for America's crime and drug
problem began in the 1980s. The assault by Republican
conservatives on job, income, and social service programs, a
crumbling educational system and industrial shrinkage dumped
more blacks on the streets with no where to go. Some chose
guns, gangs, crime and drugs. The big cuts in welfare,
social services, and skills training programs under the
Clinton administration have dumped not only more young black
males but more black females on the streets. Much of the
media instantly turned the drug problem into a black problem
and played it up big in news stories and features. Even as
crime has plunged the media continues to feed the public a
bloated diet of crime sensationalist news. Many Americans
scared stiff of the crime and drug crisis continue to give
their blessing to drug sweeps, random vehicle checks,
marginally legal searches and seizures, evictions from
housing projects and apartments. When it comes to law
enforcement practices in the ghettos and barrios, the denial
of civil liberties protections, due process and privacy make
a mockery of the criminal justice system to many blacks and

Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey who has mightily defended
the administration's policy in the past has shifted gears
and now calls the disastrous drug policy bad drug policy and
bad law enforcement. Yet McCaffrey is stone silent on the
shamefully high numbers of blacks imprisoned by the Clinton
administrations bad drug policy. Even though Clinton and
Attorney General Janet Reno call for the elimination of
disparities in the drug sentencing laws they have done
little to prod Congress to amend the laws.

The way to change bad drug policy into good policy and good
law enforcement is not to imprison thousands more Americans
for mostly petty, drug related crimes. The answer is to
shift billions from prisons to programs for drug education,
treatment and prevention, do away with the mandatory
sentencing law, restore sentencing discretion to judges,
target high level dealers for prosecution, and end drug
profiling and random stops of black and Latino motorists.

Most importantly public officials must come clean with
themselves and the public and admit that billions are being
squandered yearly on a deeply flawed, racially-tinged drug
policy. If theres no change in that policy the next report
from the Justice Policy Institute will reveal that the
majority of those jammed into Americas prison cells are

Earl Ofari Hutchinson <ehutchi344@aol.com>
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