Much has been said about the prison-industrial complex and the failed “war on drugs.” What merits a closer and deeper look is the historical, legal and social connections that makes the continuance of such policies a true travesty of justice.
Don’t know much about history
Over the last 40 years, more than 45 million drug-related arrests have cost an estimated $1 trillion. Yet drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said:
“The drug war, as we know it today, started in 1971, when Richard Nixon called it a ‘drug war.’ We had had drug laws in this country going back to the 1800s … but it was Nixon who made it a war. And when you make something a war, what comes with that are all the problems that wars bring: profiteering, corruption, fear mongering, victims, aggressors, an industrial sector that perpetuates justification for the ‘war machine’ emerges.”
The interconnected dependence between the American prison system and business community is eerily reminiscent of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us of many years ago. Prisons must have food, plumbing, laundry and phone services. So when a conviction-happy and hyper-capitalistic country with the largest incarcerated population opens its doors for business, there is no shortage of takers.
The trade show circuit, for example, has become a financial bonanza for companies and corporations hawking their wares to state and federal correctional facilities.
The color of imprisonment
Today there are more Blacks under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more Black men can’t vote now than in 1870, because of felon disenfranchisement laws.
The “get tough on crime” law enforcement movement, though colorblind in theory, is betrayed by the actual creation and execution of policies that impact and target Blacks and Hispanics more than any other groups in America. This has effectively created a growing (and seemingly permanent) underclass of Hispanic and Black American citizens that have been imprisoned for nonviolent drug related offenses – misdeeds, by the way, that are committed on a daily basis in the White populace of this nation, too.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports Blacks are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
Unequal distribution of justice equals a system that may not have explicit laws that target Blacks and Hispanics, but the results say otherwise. As a result, Blacks, who are 13 percent of the population and 14 percent of drug users, are not only 37 percent of the people arrested for drugs but 56 percent of the people in state prisons for drug offenses. The criminal (in)justice system, in its sentencing, functions as a sort of caste system – which amounts to affirmative action arrest policies and sentencing for Whites.
The narcotic of inequality
On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This legislation reduced the mandatory minimum sentence for a federal conviction of crack cocaine possession from 100 times that of people convicted of carrying the drug in powdered form to 18 times the sentence.
Crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group: most authorities estimate that more than 66 percent percent of those who use crack cocaine are white. Yet in 2006, 82 percent of those convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were Black – and adding Hispanics to the mix causes the conviction rate of people of color to jump to 96 percent.
So the myth of crack being the “Black” drug has basically led to a system of incarceration that Michelle Alexander has rightfully defined as the New Jim Crow. Whites, meanwhile, escape the stigma and the sentencing that comes with crack cocaine use.
Less we think the drug war was or is a one-party affair, let’s take a look at the not-so-distant past. Faced with wildly sensationalized and racialized portrayal of drugs and drug use, President Clinton bought in to the “war-on-drugs” conceptual framework. When Clinton entered office, the prison population — local, state and federal — was about 1.3 million. That number had risen to over 2 million by the time he left. Also at that time, nearly 60 percent of federal and 25 percent of state prisoners were incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
The Clinton administration, through the vehicle of drug task forces, consolidated and marshaled the forces of federal, state and local agencies – increasing the beast that is the prison-industrial complex. All this was done without the oversight of any particular agency.
And what we have ended up with is a system that imprisons enormous amounts of people of color for crimes where, essentially, they themselves are the only victim. And what should have been addressed by lighter sentences and drug rehab becomes an offense that’s tattooed onto the lives of its casualties like a scarlet letter.
Let’s make a horrible deal
Only 3 to 5 percent of criminal cases go to trial — the rest are plea bargained. Most Black defendants never get a trial. Most plea bargains consist of promise of a longer sentence if a person actually insists on their constitutional right to trial but loses in court. As a result, people caught up in the system, as the American Bar Association points out; often plead guilty even if they’re innocent.
That’s right, the plea bargaining system can be abused: It can extract guilty pleas from absolutely innocent people who plead guilty to charges they did not commit because they can’t afford the risk of going to trial.
In March of 2010, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “People who commit similar crimes should receive similar sentences; unfortunately, without sentencing guidelines for courts to follow, some individuals have received harsher penalties than others despite committing similar crimes.”
And yet there is still little or no redress to this critical issue of racial disproportionality in sentencing.
Dialing back or eliminating altogether the drug war policies is fiscally sound as well. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 will reduce the prison population by 1,550 person-years over the time period from 2011–2015, creating a monetary savings of $42 million during that period.
Yet, saving money or fairness in sentencing has never been the aim of the prison-industrial complex, has it?
The CBO also estimates that the law’s requirement for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a report on the effectiveness of a Department of Justice grant program to treat nonviolent drug offenders would cost less than $500,000 from appropriated funds
The stereotypes that strong-armed Congress into treating crack cocaine cases so harshly in 1986 — and subsequently in 1988 when it imposed a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession — were never rooted in actual fact the first place. There is no hard evidence, scientific or otherwise, that seriously suggests that crack is somehow more dangerous or addictive than powder cocaine. Yes, it can be argued that without consumers or demand, the supply will dry up, but what that portrays is a need for better treatment, not stiffer penalties.
Jim Crow is still with us, ladies and gentleman, and while the popular attire for certain festivities once were hoods and white robes, we have now made the transition to the more “respectable” black robes and gavels.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.
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