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Thursday, May 17, 2007 - The Seattle Times (WA)

Column: Rescuing Drug War's Prisoners

The Country Spends $60 Billion A Year On Corrections Without Correcting Much.

By Jerry Large, Seattle Times staff columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Our response to drug abuse is a bad trip that makes a nasty problem worse and spreads the damage all over.

The crack we're addicted to is an over-reliance on police and prisons, which, among other things, perpetuates America's racial divide. Black Americans are disproportionately caught up in the drug war.

That helps keep alive negative stereotypes of black people and it nourishes a lack of faith in American justice on the part of black people.

Neither condition is good for a healthy democracy.

Stanford professor Lawrence Bobo, who has made the issue central to his academic work, spoke at the University of Washington on Tuesday.

His lecture title was "Of Punitiveness And Prejudice: Racial Attitudes And The Popular Demand For Harsh Crime Policies." I spoke with him about that.

"In the best data on drug consumption, there is no difference between blacks and whites," he said. But blacks are more likely to be arrested, and if arrested, far more likely to do serious time.

Black people make up 3.5 percent of Washington's population, but constitute 19.6 percent of the state-prison population.

"Some scholars go so far as to argue that what I call racialized mass incarceration is the new fourth stage of racial oppression," Bobo said.

We've had slavery, Jim Crow, the isolation of urban ghettos and now mass imprisonment. Black men come out of jail and can't get hired; they aren't good marriage prospects. The entire community suffers.

We create a permanently stigmatized and disenfranchised population, a situation that's likely to increase crime. In surveys, most black people say the justice system isn't fair. But most white people say it is.

"I'm not optimistic about profound changes in what we've been doing," Bobo said.

Politicians and civil-rights organizations know there's a problem, he said, but most steer clear for fear of being accused of coddling criminals.

"I'm not advocating for drug dealers," Bobo said. "I'm advocating for creating law-and-order policies that don't result in the disproportionate and essentially unfair incarceration of poor black men."

His solution would be heavy on education and training as prevention and, for those who do stumble, rehabilitation.

He thinks there is hope in the burden imprisonment costs put on state budgets.

The country spends $60 billion a year on corrections without correcting much.

Washington is taking a step toward closing the revolving prison door, creating a task force to review its community-corrections program.

The Times ran a story about that Wednesday in which Gov. Christine Gregoire said, "We cannot continue to build more prisons. We must address the causes of crime and give former offenders the skills and treatment they need to stay out of prison."

So maybe we're coming out of our drug stupor a little bit.

Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, has called the drug war the most dysfunctional policy since slavery.

We know what doesn't work. It's time to kick the habit.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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