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We handle cases across the United States. Allen Stewart is licensed to practice law in Texas, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Arizona.

Racing to Prison

Sadly, the United States has jailed a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the world for which reliable statistics are available, reaching a total of 2.2 million inmates in the U.S. in 2005.[1] A large percentage of this jailed population is due to drug related offenses. And a staggering number of those incarcerated are men of color.[2]

Unfortunately, a myth perpetuated by the media and conservative politicians is that most people who use and sell drugs are people of color. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press), states: “When we picture a drug dealer, we typically imagine an African American kid on a street corner. But studies have consistently shown that people of color are no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Users typically buy drugs from someone of their own race, and plenty of drugs are sold in suburbs, in rural white communities, and on college campuses…. But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.”[3]

According to Michelle Alexander, the drug war was part of a conservative political strategy designed to appeal to poor and working-class whites anxious about busing, desegregation, and affirmative action. Alexander says, “beginning in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing, segregationists and conservative politicians found that they could successfully appeal to racial resentments by using ‘get tough’ rhetoric on issues of crime and welfare. This tactic convinced many poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic to the Republican Party.”

In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs. President Reagan reaffirmed and escalated the drug war during the 1980s. But the war was not directed towards all drugs evenly. For example, in 1986, Congress passed legislation requiring federal judges to sentence people convicted of crack cocaine offenses (think poor drug users) to significantly longer sentences than those convicted of powder cocaine offenses (think rich drug users).  Cheap cocaine—very bad; expensive cocaine—not so much. The drug “war” defined crack users as the enemy and then directed our judicial system to severely punish them. Of course, this meant that poor racial minorities using the same amount of crack cocaine as a white affluent powder cocaine user were getting much longer prison sentences basically because they couldn’t or wouldn’t use drugs with more significant social cache.

The story of how the drug war disproportionately affects minorities is found in the gathered data. Drug-related crime statistics from 1998 reveal wide racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, sentencing and deaths. African-American drug users made up 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes.[4] Nationwide African-Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offenses 13 times more often than other races,[5] even though African-Americans comprised 13% of regular drug users.[6]

The data reveals a 40-year drug war selectively waged against people of color. Law enforcement disproportionately investigates, prosecutes and, importantly, convicts poor people of color for drug related offenses. Some might argue that the different social dynamics found in racial minority neighborhoods make arresting African-Americans “easier” than making arrests in predominately white neighborhoods. But if law enforcement doesn’t spend time in white neighborhoods looking for drug users and sellers, it is unlikely to find them. The result becomes a drug war waged only in select sectors across our country, with affluent white drug users receiving little prosecutorial zeal, while our prisons teem with poor African-American drug users.

Our country would more seriously debate the never-ending drug war’s overall effectiveness if more white suburban parents believed the police and prosecutors would pursue their son or daughter with the same zeal directed towards the other side of town. If the police and prosecutors had to make as many white drug arrests and convictions as they do within minority populations, drug war politics would become a national emergency. The present legal inequity thus creates two different realities regarding national drug policy, divided largely along racial lines.

And this legal inequity has important political ramifications. Most states prohibit convicted felons from voting.[7] Consequently, the mass prosecution and incarceration of people of color removes many minorities from voter eligibility. This results in racial minorities having large community blocks ineligible to participate in the political electoral process. And because people of color traditionally vote Democratic rather than Republican there is political advantage for Republicans to press “get tough” on drugs campaigns, provided that the pressure is applied in mostly minority communities.

If our prisons don’t reflect a fair and impartial judicial system, then they accurately reflect a broken political and social system that refuses to insist on equality and justice for all.

[1] ^ Christopher J. Mumola:Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, October 2006, NCJ 213530

[2] Almost one million African-Americans are presently doing time in America.

[3] I quote extensively from The Sun February 2011 interview of Ms. Alexander.

[4] Burton-Rose, Daniel, ed (1998). The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry. Common Courage Press.

[5] Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 3 February 2010.

[6] Burton-Rose (1998).

[7] According to Ms. Alexander: “Most other Western democracies allow prisoners the right to vote…. Those countries believe it’s good for prisoners to feel connected to the society to which most of them will return. There’s also the notion that in a democracy everyone has a say, and those who are locked up may have relevant views about the justice system and the law.”

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