For years, many of the nation's leading black legislators, attorneys and social scientists complained that the nation's war on drugs was both ineffective and unfair.
They blamed policies arising from that war for the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison.
But for years, little changed.
On Wednesday, a dozen African-American professional groups announced the creation of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition, hoping to spark reform with a two-pronged approach: In a handful of cities, including Huntsville, Ala., they plan to advise judges to offer treatment rather than prison sentences for drug crimes and to push education and prevention in communities.
Nationally, they hope to launch a debate that will propel lawmakers to change mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that the coalition complains unfairly hurt blacks and other minorities.
Among the group's leaders is Kurt L. Schmoke, a former three-term Baltimore mayor who, in 1988, called drug addiction a public health problem and advocated decriminalizing drugs. His stance sparked a national debate on drug policy.
Schmoke, once a prosecutor and now the dean of Howard University Law School, will be co-chairman of the coalition.
Schmoke acknowledged that his stance on drug decriminalization did not draw widespread support, but he distanced that position from this latest effort.
"I have tried my best to ensure that people didn't see this as a Kurt Schmoke operation, because it is not," he said Wednesday. "I do strongly believe that this war on drugs should be more of a public health war. I am very pleased that this organization has come about. But it's not something I created, and it's not about decriminalizing drugs."
Schmoke said instead he wants to help fix what he calls "one of the most important issues affecting the quality of life in urban America."
He was elected to his first term as mayor in 1987, and shortly afterward he said the nation's drug policy was as big a failure as Prohibition. He advocated medical treatment for addicts instead of jail time.
Treatment, advocates hoped, would reverse a disturbing trend reported in 2002 by the Justice Policy Institute: In 1980 African-American men in colleges and universities outnumbered those in prison by more than 3-to-1. But two decades later, 791,600 black men were incarcerated for drug-related crimes, compared with 603,032 enrolled in college.
The notion that the nation's drug policies are ineffective is not new. But what sets the coalition's effort apart is its collaborative nature.
"We have had a fragmented approach for some time, but we have never had all these groups working together," said Arthur L. Burnett, a retired Washington, D.C., superior court judge, who is the full-time executive director of the coalition.
And its goals are ambitious. Supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the group plans to see results within the next five years.
The national component will be launched in February, with a conference bringing together partners to strategize a national debate. The Coalition includes such groups as the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, National Bar Association and National Association of Black Psychologists.
On the local level, the group is targeting seven pilot cities: Baltimore; Washington; Chicago; Seattle; Huntsville, Ala.; Flint, Mich.; and another city to be named in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Smaller advisory groups will work to influence local judges and to lobby legislators.
"The drug courts are fine, but they are only dealing with an infinitesimal amount of people," said Burnett, a judge of 31 years, who helped advocate for drug courts years ago. "They don't have all the resources to deal with all the people who really need help. One of our big missions is to educate legislative bodies for more intensive and more elaborate treatment. To do that, they need more money."
Beyond reforming decades-old drug laws, Burnett wants to see black professionals play a larger role mentoring children in communities and keeping them out of the streets - and away from drugs.
"Sure, there are mentoring programs out there, but they have been episodic, small and fragmented," he said. "These organizations need to come together and make educating young people the basis for their existence. We need to be concerned with doubling the numbers of black lawyers and doctors."
Drug policy affects more than dealers and addicts, he said:
"We're not dealing with drug policy only as it impacts
the criminal justice system, but it is a part of the whole problem
of the dysfunctional black family, the lack of jobs and unemployment.
Drugs is the thread that runs through all this."
October 2004 - The Black Collegian Magazine (US)
African American Professional Organizations Launch Historic Collaboration To Change Drug Policies
National African American Drug Policy Coalition Includes Black Lawyers, Psychologists, Legislators, Nurses, Dentists, Social Workers, Sociologists and Others
Urgently seeking alternatives to misguided drug policies that have made it more likely for an African American man to be in prison than college, key African American professional organizations have joined forces as the National African American Drug Policy Coalition (NAADPC), a five-year program to reduce and prevent illegal drug usage and related crime in the African American community.
Founded by Clyde E. Bailey, Sr., the National Bar Association's immediate past president and patent counsel at Eastman Kodak, the Coalition includes the National Bar Association; Howard University School of Law; the National Association of Black Sociologists; the National Association of Black Psychologists; the National Association of Black Social Workers; the National Black Nurses Association; the National Dental Association; the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.; and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
Working with initial support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Coalition is determined to stop ineffective policies that blindly push punishment as the only way to stop people from using drugs and to advance a public health approach which emphasizes the use of quality addiction treatment and other alternatives, as appropriate.
"Not only have they failed to reduce drug use, these policies are doing irreparable harm to the African American community and do not advance public safety," said Coalition National Executive Director Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., retired senior judge in the District of Columbia." Who would have thought 20 years ago that today there would be more African American men serving time than there are pursuing college degrees? We need to confront the futility of fighting a public health problem solely with prison."
According to a 2002 report by the Justice Policy Institute, at the end of 2000, 791,600 African-American men were behind bars-with drug-related offenses the most common reason for incarceration-compared to 603,032 enrolled in a college or university. By contrast, in 1980, African American men in colleges and universities outnumbered those in prison by a ratio of more than 3 to 1.
The Coalition, which is co-chaired by Kurt L. Schmoke, former mayor of the city of Baltimore and dean of the Howard University School of Law, and Clyde Bailey, is focused on treatment, education and prevention programs that, unlike criminal sanctions, have proven effective at reducing drug use and prison recidivism, thus reducing crimes and making communities safer.
Among other things, the Coalition is fighting to make treatment available to the poor and uninsured and promoting prevention programs that have demonstrated the ability to steer young people away from drug use. It also is putting a spotlight on drug law enforcement activities that have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, other ethnic minorities, and the poor.
As part of their advocacy efforts, Coalition members plan to host a series of seminars across the country to spark a national dialogue on the need to approach addictions to drugs as a public health problem first, and a criminal problem second. The Coalition plans to develop targeted programs around pretrial diversion and therapeutic sentencing. Programs around drug and alcohol prevention and treatment will be initiated in seven pilot cities. Those cities are Chicago, IL, Huntsville, AL, Flint, MI, Seattle, WA, Baltimore, MD, Washington, D.C., and a yet to be determined city in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"What we hope to do is to shift public resources into education, prevention, treatment and research programs that have proven more effective in reducing drug abuse rather than through the use of expensive criminal sanctions. We are trying to focus on the health issue of these people rather than criminalizing that behavior," said Clyde E. Bailey.
"Effective treatment will reduce the number of crimes which would otherwise have been committed by these individuals, thus making the community safer and reducing the costs of law enforcement and the courts which would have been expended in connection with new crimes," said Arthur L. Burnett, Sr.
Kurt L. Schmoke said, "This Coalition is the most broad-based group I have ever seen. I hope that it will move drug control policy in a more constructive direction, especially as it relates to people of color. A major effort will focus on therapeutic sentencing, where we will educate and train judges to provide sentences to drug offenders that will make them better people coming out of prison than they were going in."
The National African American Drug Policy Coalition is a preeminent multidisciplinary team of African American professional organizations united to promote public health versus criminalization, as a less expensive, more effective and humane approach to address the chronic societal problem of drug abuse. For more information contact: The Honorable Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., National Executive Director, National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Phone: 202-806-8211.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, NJ, is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grant making in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to quality health care at reasonable cost; to improve the quality of care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse - tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. More information on RWJF can be found at www.rwjf.org.
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