Feds Promote Prison Racial Disparities

For decades federal prisons were repositories for a relatively small number of mostly white, middle-class white-collar embezzlers, tax cheats, racketeers, and swindlers. But that has changed. According to the latest Justice Department report on America's prison population, for the first time the federal government now locks up more prisoners than any state. A significant number of those behind federal bars are young blacks and Latinos. The rate of increase in prisoners that stuff federal prisons more than doubled the rate of increase of those in state prisons in 2000. Nationally, one out of eight young blacks now languish in state and federal prisons, and a staggering one out of four will be jailed in their lifetime. More than twice as many Latinos as whites are imprisoned.

President Clinton's 1994 crime bill ignited the federal prison surge by reducing funds for drug rehabilitation and prevention programs. Worse, it did nothing to eliminate the racial inequalities in federal drug prosecutions. The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based, criminal justice reform group, has repeatedly confirmed 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 Justice Department study of federal drug offenders 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. Congressional Democrats have made a few half-hearted attempts over the years to reform the sentencing laws, but they, like Clinton, refuse to fight for those reforms.

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 nowhere 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.

The grudging change in drug policy by some states has saved 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, and that includes Bush's own state of Texas, have also modified their tough lock-em'-up approach to sentencing and have enacted a slew of drug, and alternative sentencing reforms. But this new enlightenment on drug sentencing reform by some states has not budged the feds to change their policies.

More states have finally woken up and realized that jailing mostly, poor, and desperate small time black and Latino drug offenders squanders billions, deepens the belief among many blacks and Latinos that the laws are racially warped, and perpetuates the public delusion that the nation is somehow winning the war against drugs. The pity is that the Feds refuse to wake up to that same grim reality.

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

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