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Jim Crow, The Sequel

September 28, 2000 [ Printer-friendly version ]

Just as the effectiveness -- and sanity -- of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses are being questioned nationwide, Congress, in its superior wisdom, voted Wednesday (Sept. 27) to institute mandatory minimums for possession of methamphetamine -- but specifically excluded so-called "club drugs" such as Ecstasy (which, incidentally, is a methamphetamine-based drug). Why the disparity? Could it be because meth, like crack, is associated primarily with minority users, while "X" is favored by middle- and upper-class white kids? Or should we be on the lookout for a spike in all-night raves up on The Hill?

"What you have here," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) told me, "is not a war on drugs, but the selective imprisonment and disenfranchisement of young people of color who make mistakes." Indeed, who needs Jim Crow when you have the one-two punch of mandatory minimums and disenfranchisement statutes?

According to a groundbreaking study by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, 1.4 million African American men -- 13 percent of the total black male population -- are now ineligible to vote because of state laws that deny even those felons who have fully paid their debt to society access to the polls. In Florida and Alabama, almost one in three black men is permanently barred from voting.

Last week, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law filed a suit challenging Florida's lifetime ban on behalf of Thomas Johnson, an ex-felon who is now executive director of a program that helps released prisoners readapt to life on the outside. "I paid my debt," said Johnson, "and now I have a job that helps people and improves my community. I am contributing to the growth of my society, but I can't influence its direction. I can only watch while my community forms around me without my input."

Many states -- especially in the South -- enacted disenfranchisement laws following Reconstruction so as to undercut the newly gained voting power of African Americans. This was achieved by, among other things, singling out crimes that were thought to be committed more frequently by blacks and excluding those thought to be more commonly perpetrated by whites. Sound familiar?

So while racially targeted obstacles to voting -- such as literacy and property tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses -- have been eliminated, our nation's "tough-on-crime" drug laws have produced remarkably similar results. While blacks make up 13 percent of drug users, they account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. "It's a vicious cycle," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) told me. "Our drug policies, combined with law enforcement's focus on low-level users and dealers, have led to incarceration rates among blacks 8.5 times higher than the general population -- and that in turn leads to dramatically higher disenfranchisement rates."

Conyers has introduced legislation to grant ex-felons the right to vote in federal elections, but it remains stuck in committee. He promises that if the Democrats regain the House, and he becomes chairman of the Judiciary Committee, both this piece of legislation and drug reform in general will be top priorities.

The political impact of disenfranchisement becomes startlingly clear when you juxtapose the 1.4 million black men who won't be able to vote in the 2000 election with the total number of African American men who voted in 1996: 4.6 million.

Since Al Gore and the Democrats are so dependent on the African American vote (84 percent of blacks voted for Bill Clinton in 1996), now is the time to leverage this electoral power by demanding criminal-justice reforms. "We have a rendezvous with redemption," Gore recently told a large crowd at Howard University in Washington. Replacing Barry McCaffrey would certainly speed up the rendezvous. Both Conyers and Jackson consider the choice for the next drug czar a critical appointment for the African American community. "We are tired of the military model of drug czars," said Jackson, "fighting a losing battle on the supply side and ignoring the stark reality that drug addiction is a medical problem -- not just a criminal one." Having had command of tanks and jet fighters isn't important in a drug czar; having command of common sense is. Gen. McCaffrey is as out of place leading a war on drugs as he would be leading a war on cancer.

In other words, it's way past time to move from clueless generals prosecuting a misguided drug war to drug-policy decisions based on science and public-health considerations. Otherwise, any attempt to move nonviolent drug offenders from incarceration to treatment will be stymied by the prevailing orthodoxy. Which is exactly what happened the other day to Conyers' amendment that would have allowed federal judges to divert nonviolent drug offenders to drug courts and treatment programs.

The tenfold increase in the number of people locked behind bars over the last three decades has brought a new urgency to the injustice of disenfranchisement laws. And it has thrown into sharp relief the strong racial undertones in our drug policies -- just reconfirmed in the U.S. Congress.

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