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Want to know what’s wrong with the War on Drugs?

It’s the first time that 1 in every 100 adult Americans is in prison, proof of an exploding prison system that our country can ill afford and a movement away from rehabilitation programs. Even more disturbing are the racial disparities within the prison system. More than 60% of people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities which means that 1 in every 36 Hispanic adults and 1 in every 15 black adults are in prison. How did this all happen? A change in laws and policies over the past decade have convicted more offenders, including non violent offenders, and put them away for increasingly lengthy sentences. For many, it is a system that is not providing the same returns in public safety in relation to this growth, and a rapid movement to change unfair laws has seen growing progress.

The 1980′s saw the “War on Drugs” launched in a big way. It was also the time for many federal policies that disadvantaged communities of color. One example: sentences for crack cocaine offenses (the kind found in poor Black communities) that were treated a 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenses (the kind that dominates White communities). According to the Drug Policy Alliance Network,

Reform advocates say no other single federal policy is more responsible for gross racial disparities in the federal criminal justice system than the crack/powder sentencing disparity. Even though two-thirds of crack cocaine users are white, more than 80 percent of those convicted in federal court for crack cocaine offenses are African American.

The differences in sentencing were based on a myth that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine and that it was instantly addictive and caused violent behavior, all of which has been disproved. What it’s actually led to is a costly system that focuses on low-level offenders and users instead of dealers and suppliers, imprisoning addicts that could benefit from rehabilitation programs. One analysis by Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, estimates that an increased focus on community programs and an end to the sentencing disparity could lead to a savings of half-a-billion dollars in prison costs.

With mounting pressure on Congress to do away with legislation that has devastated communities, we are at an opportune moment to instill justice back into the system. While The House Judiciary Committee has already passed a bill that ends the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the Senate Judiciary Committee will likely vote on a bill soon. Some Senators want to reduce the sentencing disparity instead of eliminating it but this watered-down compromise will do little to restore fairness. Let the Senators hear your voice.

Update: In an historic moment, legislation to reform the federal mandatory sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenses was adopted by unanimous consent last week in the U.S. Senate. Even though it is a compromise legislation that is a watered-down version of the original bill, it will result in about 3,000 defendants a year receiving an average sentence 27 months less than under the current penalty structure.

POLL: Do you support completely eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine?

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Is the criminal justice system “The New Jim Crow”?

Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole. – From ‘The New Jim Crow’.

Placed within the context of the euphoria around the election of President Obama as the nation’s first black President, Michelle Alexander‘s first book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” argues that while on the surface it seems like racial subordination is no longer entrenched in the law books, the truth is Jim Crow laws have simply been redesigned and appropriated by the criminal justice system.

Some shocking stats. One in every eight black men in their twenties are in prison or jail on any given day. There are more African Americans who are in jail, prison, probation or parole today, than were enslaved in 1850. Alexander reacts against the dominant narrative of racial justice which says that while there is still a way to go, America has come a long way from it’s history of racial discrimination, and instead explains the way that the system works to exercise a contemporary form of racial control, a process that continues long after the individuals are officially released out of the system. From Chapter 5 of the book-

The first stage is the roundup [when] vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color… Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty, whether they are or not. Once convicted… virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system. The final stage… often [has] a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. [Parolees] will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives-denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.

In Alexander’s opinion, far from living in a post-racial utopia, the last few decades have seen the United States move towards a “color-coded caste system” where minority groups are targeted, maligned and marginalized by the criminal justice system. She attributes this increase in the mass incarceration of African Americans over the past thirty years to draconian laws that have been constructed to wage “The War on Drugs”, a battle waged against low-income communities of color, even though research consistently counters the claim that any one racial community uses and sells illegal drugs more than any other.

It’s a moment to contemplate race and class in today’s America. To go beyond the illusion that all is well to a striking reminder that racial injustice is still deeply entrenched in the country. According to Alexander, nothing short of an informed and agitated movement will put an end to this perpetuation of racial inequality in the guise of enforcing justice.

Photo courtesy of newjimcrow.com

POLL: Does the criminal justice system unfairly target communities of color?

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