Feds Promote Prison Racial Disparities

For decades federal prisons were repositories for a relatively small number of mostly white, white-collar embezzlers, tax cheats, racketeers, and swindlers. But that drastically changed in 1994 when then President Clinton shoved through Congress the most punitive crime bill in American history. The law created a parade of new federal offenses and lengthened prison sentences. This virtually assured a swell in the number of those jailed in federal prisons.

According to a recent Bureau of Justice report, the rate of increase of those that now stuff federal prisons more than doubled the rate of increase of those in state prisons in 2000. The leap in federal incarceration comes at a time when state prison numbers are dropping due to increased emphasis by state lawmakers on drug, and alternative sentencing reforms. The Clinton crime bill further contributed to the federal prison swell by reducing funds for drug rehabilitation and prevention programs, and, worse, keeping intact the racial inequalities in federal drug prosecutions. The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based, criminal justice reform group, confirm that while 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. Attorney General John Ashcroft vehemently defends the feds tough lock-em'-up policy, and insists that most of those whom the feds slap behind bars are not non-violent, drug petty offenders but the big time drug kings. But a recent study of federal drug offenders by Ashcroft's own Justice Department refutes this. Nearly half of those charged in federal courts for drug offenses had no prior convictions.

For a significant number of drug offenders it was their first arrest. Less than one percent of those jailed and prosecuted by the feds fit the profile of drug lords.

Eventually Clinton gave belated and tepid support to eliminating the gaping racial disparities in the drug laws. But when Congress balked at dumping the disparities, Clinton did not fight for the change. His only public protest was a controversial, ill-conceived grant of clemency during his waning days in office in December 2000 to a top drug dealer, Carlos Vignali. The clemency was horribly tainted by charges that Vignali's father used cash and influence peddling to get his release. The clemency and the rotten publicity it got probably hardened public opinion against softening federal policy toward drug offenders.

During the presidential campaign, President Bush vaguely promised that he'd take a hard look at the nation's drug policies. That promise went out the window fast when he picked John Walters as his drug czar. Walters publicly claims that there are no racial disparities in the drug laws enforcement, and that incarceration is still the best way to deal with the drug scourge. The fed policy of putting thousands of black men behind bars for mostly non-violent drug offenses has wreaked massive social and political havoc on families and communities. At present, thirteen states permanently ban ex-felons from voting. More than half of those disenfranchised are black men. Women convicted of felony drug offenses are also barred for life from receiving welfare benefits. This puts thousands of women and their children at dire social risk and increases the likelihood that they will commit more crimes.

The scapegoating of blacks for America's crime and drug problem began in the 1980s. The conservative assault 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 Clinton administration dumped more young black males and women on the streets.

Fortunately, the grudging change in drug policy by some states may save many of them from becoming permanent prison fodder. In California, first time drug offenders now receive treatment and counseling rather than an automatic prison cell. Other states have also modified their tough lock-up approach to the drug plague. But this new enlightenment on drug sentencing has had little affect on federal policy.

A bill introduced by Alabama Democrat Jeff Sessions in December 2001, which takes a stab at reforming federal drug laws, only marginally reduces the disparity in drug sentencing. But it does not eliminate the racial disparity. More states have finally woken up and realized that jailing mostly, poor, and desperate small time black drug offenders squanders billions, deepens the cynicism among many African-Americans about the law, and perpetuates the public delusion that the nation is somehow winning the war against drugs. The pity is the feds won't wake up to that same grim reality.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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