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. One of every 100 Americans is in jail, while one in every nine Blacks is there, and one of every 15 Blacks between the ages of 18-39.
This approach to the drug epidemic did not work. While 66 percent of crack cocaine users are White, policing drugs led to policing Blacks: 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 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.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 declined for the 7th consecutive year.
Now in the early 21st Century, the jury is still out on why the Clinton administration, aware of the disparate racial impact his 1994 Crime Control act, could hold the position that the black community suffered more from the violence associated with the crack cocaine trade.
Nevertheless, it raises the question of whether Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will support this move to equalize drug sentencing and eliminate mandatory minimums. Since more Blacks are in prison than in Iraq, it is a question of vital importance to our community.
Dr. Ron Walters is an author and Director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.