Dear Sticky Wicket,
When you look at the population of our prisons, are they disproportionately occupied by young black men? Are many of these young men in prison because of drug use, or trafficking? Does this indicate that our justice system issues stiffer penalties for young black offenders than white offenders? With illegal drugs being a multi-billion dollar industry in this country, is it likely that whites are the biggest offenders?
The United States’ War On Drugs began with President Richard Nixon in 1979, and continues to this day. Yet one trillion dollars and four decades later, its success remains in question. Drugs are still rampant in our society, and Mexico’s corrupt justice system allows drug cartels to continue to funnel tons of marijuana, methamphetamines, heroin, and cocaine into the U.S.
However, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, considered as the most complete nationwide arrest and crime database available, relatively few arrests made in the war on drugs actually involve drug importers, manufacturers, or dealers. In fact, from 1999 through 2007, 80 percent or more of all drug arrests were for possession rather than sales. And for the last 40 years, drug sales arrests have never been more than about one-third of all drug arrests annually.
Studies suggest that since the mid-1980s, many people have perceived the nation’s drug problem, specifically crack cocaine, to be mainly an issue in the inner city black communities. However, a report by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), found that the ability to distribute crack cocaine in single-dose amounts makes it more marketable in lower-income neighborhoods than powder cocaine, which is usually sold only in larger, more expensive quantities. Further analysis found that the use of crack cocaine was not dependent on the race of the user, but rather on social conditions. If drug availability and social conditions were the same across all races, the odds of individuals using crack cocaine would not differ by race or ethnicity.
According to Craig Haney, PhD, and Philip Simbardo, PhD, because of inflexible sentencing guidelines, such as the ‘three-strikes and you’re out’ law, “a disproportionate number of young Black and Hispanic men are more likely to be imprisoned for life under scenarios in which they are guilty of little more than a history of untreated addiction, and several prior drug-related offenses.”
That, at least, may be changing. In July, Congress changed a 1984 law that was enacted when crack cocaine use was at epidemic levels. Since then, the law has been sending tens of thousands of blacks to prison for crack cocaine possession, but users caught with the powder form of the same drug that tended to be mainly white, historically received much more lenient sentencing.
“There is no law enforcement or sentencing rationale for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sponsor of the Senate bill, said that while blacks make up 30 percent of crack users, they account for more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. Under current law, possession of five grams of crack triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. The same mandatory sentence applies to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine. Last month’s amendment, the ‘Fair Sentencing Act,’ would apply the five-year term to someone with 28 grams, or an ounce of crack, which is about the amount the average crack dealer would have in possession.
As a result, this amendment, the USSC estimates that over 13,000 black inmates would be considered eligible for sentence reduction.
Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon says that in order for America to fix the drug problem, it first needs to address Americans unending desire for illegal drugs. Drug policies need to take a public health approach to try to reduce demand, rather than a penal one that focuses on the suppliers, particularly suppliers in minority neighborhoods. In synch with this sentiment, while campaigning, President Barack Obama stated that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. In 2011, Obama is requesting $15.5 billion for the drug war. Two thirds of it will go toward law enforcement – police, military, and border patrol agents in a position to seize drugs and arrest traffickers – and $5.6 billion would go toward addiction prevention and treatment.
The imprisonment of so many young black men creates a negative impact on not only the individuals, but their communities as well. As Michael Tonry, Professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota, points out in his book, Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America, unless drug control policies can change so that they are “less destructive of poor black males and poor black communities,” the already bleak life prospects faced by many disadvantaged blacks will not improve. The new ‘Fair Sentencing Act’, combined with attention toward prevention and treatment for drug users, is just the beginning of this necessary change.
- Human Rights Watch. Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States © 2008 by Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2004,” Statistical Tables, Table 2.1, http://www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/html/scscf04/tables/scs04201tab.htm
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Felony Sentences,” Table 2.5, http://www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/html/scscf04/tables/scs04205tab.htm
- Federal Bureau of Prisons, http://www.bop.gov/
- Craig Haney, PhD, and Philip Zimbardo, PhD, "The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy: Twenty-five Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment," American Psychologist, Vol. 53, No. 7 (July 1998), p. 718. http://www.prisonexp.org/pdf/ap1998.pdf
- Tonry, Michael. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. Oxford University Press, 1996, p.7.
United States Sentencing Commission. http://www.ussc.gov/crack/chap1-4.pdf
- The Color of Crime: Race, Crime and Justice in America, a study by New Century Foundation, 2nd, Expanded Edition, 2005.