The Common Good
May-June 2003

Equal Justice?

by Sanho Tree | May-June 2003

Drugs, race, and some pretty skewed numbers.

Only 12 percent of the nation's drug users are African American, but blacks constitute almost 35 percent of those arrested for drug violations, more than 45 percent of those in federal prisons for drug violations, and almost 60 percent of those in state prisons for drug felonies.

At every stage of the criminal justice process, minorities bear the brunt of the drug war: Fifty-three percent of African-Americans convicted of drug offenses get sentenced to prison vs. 46 percent of whites convicted of the same offenses; 57 percent of African-Americans are sentenced to prison for trafficking while 42 percent of whites are sentenced to prison for the same crime. From 1986 to 1996, the number of white youth imprisoned for drug offenses doubled, while the black youth being sent to prison for drug crimes increased six-fold. The main casualty of our war on drugs has been the concept of equal justice under the law.

While our government estimates some 94 million Americans have tried an illicit drug, only a small fraction of those users are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. Not surprising, law enforcement tends to be directed toward the poor and communities of color. Assuming recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, the Department of Justice estimates 1 of every 20 Americans can be expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime—for African-American men, the number is greater than 1 in 4.

In an era when we cannot even find a major political figure who can say they haven't used illegal drugs (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush to name but a few), we must ask a fundamental question of fairness: Would a good stiff prison sentence have helped them in their lives and careers? If the answer is no, then why is it such a good thing for all the poor people and people of color languishing in prison? —ST

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