Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The War on Drugs is Still a War on Blacks:

The recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the sex and drug habits of Americans is the latest to toss an ugly glare on the naked race-tainted war on drugs. The survey found that whites are much more likely to use drugs than blacks.

Other studies have found roughly equal rates of drug usage by blacks and whites. But what makes the survey more eye-catching is that it didn't solely measure generic drug use, but singled out the use of cocaine and street drugs.

The findings fly in the face of the conventional drug war wisdom that blacks use and deal street drugs while whites use trendy, recreational designer drugs, and that these presumably include powder cocaine. That again calls into question the gaping disparity in drug sentencing between whites and blacks.

More than 70 percent of those prosecuted in federal courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences are blacks. Federal prosecutors and lawmakers justify the disparity with the retort that crack cocaine is dangerous and threatening, and leads to waves of gang shoot-outs, turf battles, and thousands of terrorized residents in poor black communities. In some instances, that's true, and police and prosecutors are right to hit back hard at the violence.

But the majority of those who deal and use crack cocaine aren't violent prone gang members, but poor, and increasingly female, young blacks. They clearly need help not jailing.

But it's a myth that powder cocaine is benign and has no criminal and violent taint to it. In a comprehensive survey in 2002, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White House's low profile task force to combat drug use, attributed shoplifting, burglary, theft, larceny, money laundering and even the transport of undocumented workers in some cities to powdered cocaine use. It also found that powder cocaine users were more likely to commit domestic violence crimes. The report also fingered powder cocaine users as prime dealers of other drugs that included heroin, meth and crack cocaine.

Even more revealing, they sold crack cocaine and heroin in inner city neighborhoods. The top-heavy drug use by young whites -- and the crime and violence that go with it -- has stirred no public outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions, and tough prison sentences for white drug dealers, many of whom deal drugs that are directly linked to serious crime and violence. Whites unlucky enough to get popped for drug possession are treated with compassion, prayer sessions, expensive psychiatric counseling, treatment and rehab programs, and drug diversion programs. And they should be. But so should those blacks and other non-whites victimized by discriminatory drug laws.

Voters and legislators in California, New York, Michigan and other states now recognize that bankrupting state budgets to lock up nonviolent drug offenders won't win the war on drugs. They have opted for drug diversion, treatment and counseling programs rather than jail as the far more effective, humane, and cost effective way to deal with drug users. This has brought some measure of sanity back to drug enforcement policy. But that doesn't sit well with the drug warriors; they have and will continue to resist any effort to get Congress to modify or scrap the blatant and deliberate racial disparity in drug sentencing laws.

In an odd way, they have to take their hard stand. The public scapegoating of blacks for America's drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless. A frank admission that the laws are biased and unfair, and have not done much to combat the drug plague, would be an admission of failure. It could ignite a real soul searching over whether all the billions of dollars that have been squandered in the failed and flawed drug war -- the lives ruined by it, and the families torn apart by the rigid and unequal enforcement of the laws -- has really accomplished anything.

This might call into question why people use and abuse drugs in the first place -- and if it is really the government's business to turn the legal screws on some drug users while turning a blind eye to others?

The greatest fallout from our failed drug policy is that it further embeds the widespread notion that the drug problem is exclusively a black problem. This makes it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention, and bloat state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while continuing to feed the illusion that we are winning the drug war.

The CDC survey is smoking gun proof of one thing: As long as state and federal officials ruthlessly hunt for drug culprits in poor black communities, that illusion will continue to wreck lives, mostly black lives.

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, New America Media
Posted on June 27, 2007, Printed on June 27, 2007

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Paris Can Make a Difference Behind Bars:

In a collect call to ABC's Barbara Walters from the Los Angeles County Jail a solemn and pensive Paris Hilton claimed that she's no longer a bimbo, and that she wants to make a difference in people's lives. The credit for her sudden stunning activist epiphany must go to the coalition of Los Angeles civil rights leaders who publicly challenged Hilton to be an advocate for prisoner rights two days before she called Walters.

There are certainly plenty of candidates for her to help at the jail. Unlike her, they are nameless, and faceless, mostly poor, and minority. But like her, many of them are female. Hilton is discovering from her ordeal that tens of thousands of women are doing time, many of them hard time, behind bars in America's jails and prisons.

According to a Justice Department report in 2004 on America's jail population, women make up about 10 percent of America's inmates. There are more women than ever serving time.

The government is expanding the women's prison-industrial complex. From 1930 to 1950 five women's prisons were built nationally. During the 1980s and 1990s dozens more prisons were built, and a growing number of them are maximum-security women's prisons. But the prison-building splurge hasn't kept pace with the swelling number of women prisoners. Women's prisons are understaffed, overcrowded, lack recreation facilities, and serve poor quality food. They suffer chronic shortages of family planning counselors and services, gynecological specialists, drug treatment and child care facilities, and transportation funds for family visits.

More women are behind bars as much because of a tough public mood toward punishment as for their actual crimes. One out of three crimes committed by women is drug related. Many state and federal sentencing laws mandate minimum sentences for all drug offenders. This virtually eliminates the option of referring non-violent first time offenders to increasingly scarce, financially strapped drug treatment, counseling and education programs. Stiffer punishment for crack cocaine use also has landed more black women in prison, and for longer sentences than white women.

Then there's the feminization of poverty and racial stereotyping. One out of three black women jailed did not complete high school, was unemployed, or had incomes below the poverty level at the time of her arrest. More than half of them were single parents.

The quantum leap in women behind bars has had a devastating impact on families and the quality of life in many communities. Thousands of children of incarcerated women are raised by grandparents, or warehoused in foster homes and institutions. The children are frequently denied visits because the mothers are deemed unfit. This prevents mothers from developing parenting and nurturing skills and badly harms the parent-child bond. Many children of imprisoned women drift into delinquency, gangs and drug use. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty, crime and violence. There are many cases where parents and even grandparents are jailed.

There is little sign that this will change. Much of the public and politicians are deeply trapped in the damaging cycle of myths, misconceptions and panic about crime-on-the-loose women. They are loath to increase funds and programs for job and skills training, drug treatment, education, childcare and health, and parenting skills.

If Hilton became a social advocate it wouldn't be unique. Her counterpart, Martha Stewart had her own epiphany after a stint in a prison in Alderson, West Virginia in 2005. Stewart's daily shoulder-rub with other women prisoners opened her eyes wide to the gaping iniquities in the criminal justice system. She called for reforms in sentencing and a drastic improvement in the programs and services to help women and first time offenders rebuild their lives.

When a glamorous figure such as Stewart demands prison reform it makes news. And at least for a fleeting moment gets the attention of a yawning public to the plight of women prisoners.

Hilton's party going, paparazzi driven, media voyeuristic world of fortune was even more light years removed from the grim world of the many poor women. But, like Stewart, that world came crashing down with her jailing, and the public disgust and rage at her for trying to worm out of punishment. Her epiphany won't totally dab away the heavy layer of taint on her image.

But if Hilton can turn some of her celebrity limelight, as Stewart did, on the thousands of poor, needy females in America's jails it will be a mild boost for the prison reform battle. Then, and only then, can she really say that she made a difference.

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson who is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.