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March 10, 2008 -- Louisiana Weekly (LA)

Column: Now Is The Time To Liberate Blacks From Prisons

By Ron Walters, NNPA Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A new study by the Pew Center has just confirmed something we have known for quite a while. The United States went on an incarceration binge in the first Bush and Clinton administrations that now finds America holding one-quarter of all the prisoners in the world. It says that one of every 100 Americans is in jail, while one in every nine Blacks are there, with one of 15 Blacks between the ages of 18-39.

Whether it is that America is embarrassed or, in the case of some politicians, see that the "tough on crime" era did not amount to crime reduction, or financial savings, or added safety, this approach to the drug epidemic did not work. And while 66 percent of crack cocaine users are White, policing drugs led to policing blacks, resulting in the fact that 80 percent of those locked up are for petty drug offenses.

Now it seems that there is a developing mood in the Congress among both Democrats and Republicans that something should be done. Rep. Bobby Scott (VA) has introduced HR 5035, a bill that is supported by the NAACP and other groups to reduce the sentences for possession of crack cocaine.

The bill would eliminate the added penalties for cocaine base use, eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence associated with it and use the savings for drug treatment and counseling. Scott recently held hearings that featured an array of people, from a black former drug dealer, a judge, an NIH official, a state official and others who all agreed that the disparities in cocaine sentencing together with mandatory minimums has failed.

As I listened to the hearings, I remembered the era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when each and every politician running for office was obliged to show that he or she could be tougher on crime than the other person.

In fact, what transpired before our eyes was a discussion about race, justifying the long sentences given blacks, suggesting that since crack cocaine fostered violence in their neighborhoods severe punishment would cure the problem.

Now, more than one million imprisoned Americans later, we know that not only has it not worked, it has created bloated state expenditures on jail construction rather than schools, leading to the need for intensified policing to fill the jails and in the process provide the cheap labor for prison industries associated with them.

But I also remember that in 1997, Rep Maxine Waters called on then President Bill Clinton to provide $5 billion in construction money for dilapidated schools and to ease the drug sentencing guidelines for power and crack cocaine.

But while Al Gore advocated equalizing the penalties before an organization of black Journalists, the Trotter Group, Bill Clinton clung to the belief that the impact of violence associated with the drug trade was a justification for keeping some inequality between the drugs.

This weak rationale associated with sentencing that was never fully vetted, since both drug crack and power influenced black and white communities dramatically in some way.

So, even as Supreme Court justice Stephen Steven Bryer and other lower level judges rebelled against the use of mandatory minimum sentencing as unfair and racially biased, and the Sentencing Commission recommended equalization to the Clinton administration, Rep. Waters received neither the $5 billion, nor the drug equalization change from Clinton.

She had a special reason of course, because it was her district that was flooded by the importation of crack in the mid-1980s, as a result of the Reagan administration inspired Iran-Contra scandal where the CIA used money from the drug sales to finance the war against the Contras in Nicaragua.

In this election, there is perhaps no greater issue for the black community than liberating as many of its members as possible that were legislated into prison by the anti-crime craze of an earlier era. What makes it appear to have been an action taken against the black community is fact that an FBI report in 1998 indicated that serious crime had been declined for the 7the consecutive year.

Now in the early 21st Century, the jury is still out why the Clinton administration, aware of the disparate racial impact his 1994 Crime Control act and targeting policing were having upon blacks who were incarcerated, their families and their future, could hold the position that the black community suffered more from the violence associated with the crack cocaine trade.

Nevertheless, it raises the question now of the judgment has been exercised by Hillary and Barack Obama on the decision to equalize drug sentencing and eliminate Mandatory Minimums. This decision could also save lives and since there are more Blacks in prison than in Iraq, it is also more important.

Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.

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