Criminalizing A Generation

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.
. Every year the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based public advocacy group, issues an annual report that warns that more African-Americans than ever are being locked up in America's prisons. This year their report is even worse. If present trends continue one million African American adults, mostly young black males, will wind up behind bars by the end of the year 2000. The social and political havoc to families and communities of putting one in ten black men behind bars is staggering.

The standard 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 still be summed up in four words: racially-biased drug laws. Many law enforcement and politicians argue that the laws aren't 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:
  • 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 of ten years to life are African-American.
  • Only five percent of those sentenced to jail terms are major dealers
  • 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 actually 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 quickly turned the drug problem into a black problem and played it up big in news stories and features. Many Americans scared stiff of the drug crisis readily gave their blessing to drug sweeps, random vehicle checks, marginally legal searches and seizures, evictions from housing projects and apartments. When it came to law enforcement practices in the ghettos and barrios, the denial of civil liberties protections, due process and privacy made a mockery of the criminal justice system to many blacks and Latinos. Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey who has mightily defended the administration's policy in the past shifted gears in a recent interview and branded the disastrous drug policy a case of "bad drug policy and bad law enforcement."

The way to right the ship and change bad drug policy into good policy and good law enforcement is not to build more prisons, pass even tougher laws, or as some suggest equalize sentences for crack and powdered cocaine. This would only nail more small time white users and dealers. 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. On this point, New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman should be praised for firing her state police chief after he blamed minorities for the drug problem. The inference from his wrong-headed remarks was that it's OK for police to target and profile minorities.

But most importantly public officials must come clean with themselves and the public and admit that $35 billion yearly is being squandered on a deeply flawed, racially-tinged drug policy. Until then the Sentencing Project will continue to issue the same dreary and alarming report every year telling that America's prison cells bulge with more and more African-Africans.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.

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