LET’S DO BETTER
President Barack Obama’s pardon of eight people serving time for crack cocaine convictions was a good way to introduce the new year. A reasonable society, particularly a country who promotes “justice for all,” has an obligation to fairly treat all of it’s citizens. Reportedly, the Justice Department pushed for a decrease in the prison population which set the tone for the pardons. Hopefully, the president’s move was not in response to the Justice Department’s reasoning, but more so because crack cocaine sentencing policies are racist and protect the rich while further disenfranchising the most vulnerable. If the president granted clemency for the right reasons, he is more likely to pardon thousands more and push Congress to change drug sentencing law.
Michelle Alexander, noted law professor at Ohio State University, is author of a best seller, “The New Jim Crow in the Age of Colorblindness.” Alexander did extensive research on racial discrepancies in the number of black, brown, and white men in the nation’s prisons. Alexander discovered there are more black men in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War. And, while crime rates overall have fluctuated, and in some cases declined in the last 30 years, drug crimes have skyrocketed.
Thus, the importance of President Obama’s pardons comes down to the racial disparities in drug sentencing. The “war on drugs,” which was waged almost exclusively in black communities, has led to more incarcerations for young black males. Studies show that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or above blacks, yet blacks are more often jailed. The American Civil Liberty Union revealed blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use and concluded the “war of drugs” is expensive, inefficient, and racially biased. Alarmingly, four of five black males will be caught in the criminal justice system during their lifetime, and the majority will be in the system due to drug infractions. Consequently, our readers are likely to have or will have a son, grandson, or great grandson who will “catch a case.”
These black males, because of drug felony convictions, will be or are presently disenfranchised, denied college loans, excluded from access to decent employment, and unable to self-support and take care of their families because they were caught with a few grams of marijuana. The same disparities exist with usage of crack-cocaine and powdered cocaine. Since blacks earn less money that whites (median income for whites is $55,000 and for blacks $33,000) blacks are more likely to use crack-cocaine, while whites’ drug of choice is powdered cocaine.
President Obama, in 2010 signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act. The law reduced the disparity between the amount of crack-cocaine and powdered cocaine from 100 to 1 ratio to 18 to 1 ratio. This means, until this law was signed, a person convicted of possessing crack-cocaine was considered to have 100 times the amount of a person possessing the powdered cocaine, although the weight amount was exactly the same. The ratio is now 18 to 1, still unfair, still racist.
While the president’s clemency for eight people was a good start, it is only a start. The Washington Post reported President Obama has pardoned 52 people during his presidency. In comparison, his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, at the same time in their presidency, had pardoned 97 and 74 respectively.
President Obama has an opportunity to “make a real difference” for justice. Reportedly, 9,000 people were unfairly sentenced. With the stroke of a pen, the president could correct a horrible injustice. And, he could push the legislative branch to totally revoke the old law and give federal judges authority to reduce existing sentences.
A new year grants all of us opportunities to make resolutions and, of course, our president has the same chance. He has acknowledged current drug laws are unjust. He further acknowledged, under laws prior to 1986, these 9,000 inmates would have received shorter sentences and in some cases would have completed their time.
So, we challenge the president to go further and make a New Year’s resolution to do the right thing for those unjustly sentenced inmates. We challenge the president to focus upon the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenges and controversy.” Let’s all of us remember King’s quote as we make our New Year resolutions. Happy New Year.
Brenda Robinson is an NNPA Emory O. Jackson award-winning columnist for Frost Illustrated.