No Slowdown in Prison Boom For Blacks

There's much to cheer about in the recent Justice Department report that shows the first slowdown in nearly three decades in the number of people imprisoned. More politicians, and law enforcement officials, it seems, have finally realized that warehousing thousands of people in American prisons is no panacea for the nation's crime and drug ills. In states such as California and New York, courts are much more willing to send people to drug treatment programs rather than prison.

The bad news is that the new window of public enlightenment on crime and punishment remains tightly closed for blacks. They now make up nearly half of the more than 2 million persons behind bars. According to the Justice Department report, ten percent of all black males between ages 25 and 29 are in federal and state prisons. The rate is three times greater than that for Latino males, and ten times higher than for white males.

The soaring black incarceration rate has wreaked monumental damage on black families and communities. 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, if not outright bar, ex-felons from voting. The voting ban diminishes the political power of the black communities. The high black imprisonment rate also 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 embarrassing and disgraceful reason is the racially-biased drug sentencing laws. Though far more whites use and deal drugs including crack cocaine than blacks, 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 are African-American. They are also more likely to receive longer sentences in state prisons for drug-related crimes than whites.

Congress has refused repeatedly to modify, let alone eliminate, these racial disparities. So far, neither President Bush or Attorney General John Ashcroft have given any sign that they will, as former President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno did, prod Congress to rethink the sentencing laws.

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 during the past decade dumped even more young black males, and 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 and prison rates dipped, 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 Latinos.

Before he left office, former Clinton drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, shifted gears and branded the nation's drug policy "bad drug policy and bad law enforcement." McCaffrey's belated recognition that the nation's drug laws were deeply flawed, and racially-tinged did nothing to staunch the skyrocketing numbers of blacks imprisoned for mostly petty, drug related crimes during the Clinton years.

It did, however, signal that some officials were willing to reverse course and push to shift more resources from prisons to programs for drug education, treatment and prevention. Now it's time for public officials to take the next step. They must fight hard to do away with the mandatory drug sentencing laws, restore sentencing discretion to judges, target high level dealers for prosecution, and end drug profiling and random stops of black and Latino motorists.

The slowdown in America's imprisonment craze is welcome. But if that slowdown does not extend to blacks, the next report from the Justice Department will likely show that even more of those being jammed into America's prison cells are African-Africans.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and president of the National Alliance for Positive Action.

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