Why Bush Should Rethink Walters

This past summer the Justice Department reported that for the first time in nearly three decades the number of people imprisoned has slowed down. The reason is easy to find.

More politicians, and law enforcement officials finally realize that piling thousands of people in American prisons is no panacea for the nation’s crime and drug ills.In California, New York, and a handful of other states, D.A.s and judges are much more willing to send people to drug treatment programs than prison. But one man could slam shut that window of policy enlightenment.

Last May, John Walters, President Bush’s pick to spearhead the country’s drug fight, ridiculed the charge that too many minorities are being imprisoned for illegal drugs, as an “urban myth.” What Walters was thinking when he made that borderline racially insulting remark is a mystery. But it drew instant howls of protest from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, drug reform groups, and even some conservatives. All have ganged up to oppose Walter’s pending Senate confirmation.

The big danger if Waters is confirmed is that he will instantly plunge government drug policy back to the disastrous lock-em-up and toss the key approach. This would have an especially horrendous impact on 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 that Walters sees nothing wrong with. 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 is African-American. They are also more likely to receive longer sentences in state prisons for drug-related crimes than whites. Congress has repeatedly refused to modify the racial disparities. President Bush and Drug Enforcement Administration Director Asa Hutchinson say they will put more resources into treatment and take a look at reform of the mandatory sentencing laws. As yet, they have taken no action. And if Walters calls the shots on drug policy, there is even less chance that they will.

But this shouldn’t surprise. Walter’s crude characterization of the gaping racial disparities in the drug laws as a myth continues the ugly pattern of scapegoating of blacks for America's crime and drug problem.

The pattern 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, and marginally legal 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, who has expressed deep reservations about Walter’s nomination, branded the nation’s prison warehouse approach to the drug war as bad drug policy and bad law enforcement. Walters pooh-pooh of racial disparities in the drug laws as an urban myth guarantees a quick turn back to that bad policy. Bush should rethink him, and that policy.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com.

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