Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The Storm is Passing Over, Hallelujah!
America has imprisoned more people per capita than anyone else in the world, nearly 2 million persons of which African Americans constitute half despite representing a mere 12 percent of the general population. With a tenth of all black men between 20 and 35 years of age in jail or prison, you are liable to find at least one imprisoned black person in almost every family or extended family circle. Why are so many African Americans in prison?
A case can be made that the answer has something to do with a failed and misguided War on Drugs begun in 1970 under President Richard Nixon that has failed to make any reduction in the percentage of Americans addicted to illegal drugs even after thirty-nine million arrests and a cost of over a trillion dollars. The battle has however, produced a pronounced stamp upon the shape and definition of the criminal justice system and upon African American family life as blacks are 12% of the total population as noted above, 12% of drug users and drug sellers but over-represented at 34% of those arrested for drug offenses and 45% in state prison.
Racial bias in sentencing along with disparate law enforcement practices that has placed its focus and concentrated resources on drug arrests in low-income minority communities while limiting arrests and attention in other neighborhoods certainly is has played a major factor in the over-incarceration of blacks.
This failed strategy may have occurred because the media poster child for drug sellers and substance abusers is the young, urban, black male crime and thug figure operating in the ‘hood while the drug problems of numerous high-profile white movie stars and celebrities are depicted as medical or health issues.
As crime and violence previously confined to the inner cities escalated in rural, suburban, on and off- campus college housing and other previously insulated areas as a result of the decline of crack and the rising demand for prescription drugs and methamphetamines, the epidemic drug problem became more visible and the need for serious attention much more apparent.
While law enforcement practices and courts colored the penal system black and brown, a Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush White House, politicians, and the press applied additional coats of color by feeding public fear of crime with racist get-tough punitive pronouncements and an emphasis upon the supply of illicit drugs rather than by curbing the demand or appetite for drugs utilizing rehabilitation methods and prevention as recommended by expert drug policy scholars. The Obama White House, in a dramatic policy shift has indicated that it will push for more treatment rather than incarceration and offer first-time nonviolent offenders a chance to serve their sentences in drug rehab rather than in prison.
The good news for the African American community is that the disparate racial dynamics of the penal system which has been skewed by a failed War on Drugs is changing.
The Sentencing Project's The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs in its April 2009 report makes the astonishing announcement that for the first time in over 25 years more whites are going to jail for drugs and that blacks are being incarcerated at a slower rate. The number of African Americans in state prisons for a drug offense declined by 31,000 persons or 21.6% from 1999-2005 while the number of whites incarcerated for drugs increased by 42.6% or an additional 21,000.
The stark, cold present reality is that there are still nearly 1 million African Americans in this 21st century slavery and social control system called prison who are basically excluded from ever becoming productive employees, good husbands and fathers, or contributing members of society.
However, "behind every dark cloud lies a silver lining." Therefore a more positive and productive insight views the trend in declining incarcerations as an occasion to say goodbye to the fading night of thug life and culture of failure and to begin to celebrate a new dawning of liberation and the re-establishment of a culture of achievement and other historically prevalent core values which Africans brought to this land but which we have allowed to slip away such as education, identity, self-determination, inter-dependency and spirituality.