After more than a quarter century of crafting well-intentioned, but poorly thought out drug laws, there are increasing signs that the nation is finally moving toward adopting more reasonable drug policies.
The most recent evidence comes from a report by the Sentencing Project titled, "The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs." The report, authored by Executive Director Marc Mauer, contains the startling conclusion that from 1999-2005, the number of African Americans incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses declined while the figures for Whites increased over that same period. Black imprisonment fell by 21.6 percent as the rate for Whites increased by 42.6 percent.
"The unparalleled growth in the U.S. prison population is directly related to policies that prioritized enforcement and harsh punishments for low-level crime offenses," Mauer says. "This domestic war on drugs was fought on the doorsteps of African American communities, but its disparate impact on these communities may finally be waning."
The report notes that approximately 40,000 people were incarcerated for a drug offense in 1980. Today, that figure is about 500,000, which is larger than the number of people imprisoned in 1980 for all offenses.
Whites in state prisons increased from 50,700 in 1999 to 72,300 in 2005. Meanwhile, Blacks dropped from 144,700 to 113,500. Latinas decreased from 52,100 to 51,000.
Evidently, no single action accounts for the lower Black imprisonment for drugs. The study says it may be a combination of less police attention to open-air drug markets popular in Black neighborhoods, more focus on suburban drug use and the intervention of drug courts that diverts people from jail.
"The increase in incarceration for drug offenses has been fueled by sharply escalated law enforcement targeting of drug violations, often accompanied by enhanced penalties for such offenses," the report said. "Many of the mandatory sentencing provisions adopted in both state and federal law has been focused on drug offenses. At the federal level, the most notorious of these are the penalties for crack cocaine violations, whereby crack offenses are punished more severely than powder cocaine offenses, even though the two substances are pharmacologically identical."
Even with some modification to the federal sentencing, federal provisions still require that anyone convicted of possessing as little as five grams of cocaine receive a five-year mandatory sentence for first-time offenders.
The push to have convicted drug offenders receive mandatory terms, taking the process out of the hands of judges, can be traced to two sources. One was the notorious "Rockefeller Drug Laws," named after former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Passed in 1973, the laws required judges to sentence a person 15 years to life for selling two ounces of narcotics or possessing four ounces of an illegal substance. Other states followed New York in the so-called war on drugs. California called their version three strikes and out.
The other push was from Rep. Tip O'Neill, the powerful House speaker from Massachusetts. Upset that his beloved Boston Celtics lost Len Bias, its No. 1 draft choice, through a cocaine overdose, O'Neil rushed through federal mandatory drug laws.
Years later, both liberals and conservatives complained about the overly restrictive nature of the legislation. And thousands of young people, some running afoul of the law for the first time, found their lives in ruin, including Kemba Smith, the subject of an Emerge magazine campaign that resulted in her being pardoned in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.
The combination of looming deficits and concerns about the fairness of the mandatory sentencing laws, are causing states to pull back.
New York, for example, has removed the last vestiges of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, saving the state about $250 million per year. It cost New York $45,000 each year to confine a prisoner.
Those same economic and social forces are causing some lawmakers to re-think their approach to marijuana.
"In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number arrests for marijuana offenses, which is now more than 40 percent of all drug arrests," the Sentencing Project stated. "The vast majority of marijuana arrests, more than 80 percent, have also been for possession offenses."
But now, that opinion may be shifting. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed the DEA to halt federal raids on facilities that distribute marijuana for medical reasons. That does not mean he is an advocate of legalization. While serving as U.S. Attorney in Washington, he advocated making distribution of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute a felony.
Earlier, President Obama – Holder's boss – said he favors decriminalization of marijuana but not legalizing it. Whether he will maintains that position is unknown. Whatever the decision, it is certain to be more progressive than anything Bush supported.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.