Unfair and Unequal Drug Policy for Almost 40 Years

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We have to examine our past to determine the impact of current drug policy in order to ensure that these results don't just happen again--while we stand by and watch. 

Since the 1980s no single issue has struck at the heart of the struggles of Black America quite like the "War on Drugs" has.  

Let me first state that the majority of black, white and Hispanic people in America do not use illicit drugs and if they do, they do so AT THE SAME RATES— this has been the case for decades.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Given the media coverage and the War on Drugs over the past 30 years, you might think that drug dealing and crack cocaine are what drives drug abuse violations in America, but the data show something different. 

According to the FBI’s 2014 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program 83.1% of ALL drug abuse arrests reported to them were for possession (not sales) and of that, 39.7% were for possession of marijuana. 

When you look at drug sentencing laws, they have largely been focused in certain areas and have been unequal.

In 1980 there were about 40,000 people in jail for drug offenses—in 2009 there were more people in jail for drug-related violations than were in jail for ALL offenses thirty years earlier (Mauer-Sentencing Project).

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws required that someone who possessed 5 grams of crack cocaine receive five years of minimum jail time, while someone who had 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive that same sentence.

  • 5 grams vs. 500 grams 
  • A 100-to-1 sentencing disparity

In 2010 the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the statutory penalties for crack cocaine to an 18-to-1 disparity, now 28 grams of crack cocaine and still 500 grams of powder cocaine carry a five-year (mandatory) sentence under the current federal trafficking law.

The law also eliminated the first-time mandatory minimum penalty for simple possession of crack cocaine.  These policies have led to different sentences, over the years, for people convicted of essentially doing the same crime--trafficking drugs.

United States Sentencing Commission, August 2015 (federal criminal justice system).

Note that in 2005 the average sentence imposed on powder cocaine traffickers was 83 months and the average sentence of crack cocaine traffickers was 124 months--a difference of 3.4 years.  

In 2013 the average sentence imposed for powder cocaine traffickers was 79 months, while the average sentence for crack cocaine traffickers was 96 months...a difference of 1.4 years.  

Given the impact of prison time on a person's life (and on their family) the differences of 1.4 or 3.4 years of additional jail time for doing essentially the same crime is criminal in and of itself.

This uneven focus and unfair approach has contributed to a criminalization of black people to the point where too many feel subjected to suspicion and observation wherever they go--“stop and frisk” procedures, driving and traffic stops (see the Justice Department Ferguson Report for an example), etc.

Former U.S. Representative, and now U.S. Senator, Tim Scott from South Carolina described how he was stopped seven times in one year by law enforcement officers as an elected official in the United States.

Voting

According to the Sentencing Project, over 6.1 million people are estimated to be disenfranchised due to felony convictions.  For African-Americans in the states of:

  • Florida (21%),
  • Kentucky (26%),
  • Tennessee (21%) and
  • Virginia (22%)

...1 in 5 are disenfranchised and 7.4% are estimated to be disenfranchised throughout the country.  Eighteen states deny voting rights to people who are currently in prison, on parole or on probation.  

Another twelve states deny those rights to people who are in prison, on parole or probation AND to some or ALL of those who have completed their sentences.  

The fairness of the criminal justice system, therefore, has a direct impact on a citizen's right to vote--it is imperative that we get sentencing and justice right in this country!

Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people who are in prison to vote.

Consider This...

When it comes to incarceration, black and Hispanic-American men made up 58.9%—almost 60%— of all of the men who were imprisoned in the United States at the end of 2014, despite the fact that black and Hispanic people make up about 30% of the total population.

Other Facts About Voting

There have recently been challenges to voter ID laws and redistricting plans throughout parts of the country.  Advocates say that voter ID laws have been designed to disenfranchise minority voters or that they have that effect.

Recently, in Texas, cases have come before federal and district courts involving these issues.

This year a U.S. District Judge found intentional discrimination in a voter ID law signed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2011.  

Also a federal court has just ruled that voting districts drawn by authorities for the state's House of Representatives were deliberately gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of racial minorities.  

Specifically the court said in a 2-1 ruling that:

"Plaintiffs have shown that seven compact majority-HCVAP districts could and should be drawn there that would substantially address the § 2 rights of Hispanic voters in South/West Texas, including Nueces County. Defendants’ decision to place Nueces County Hispanic voters in an Anglo district had the effect and was intended to dilute their opportunity to elect their candidate of choice (Page 164)."

This means that state legislative maps, U.S. congressional maps and a voter ID law (all in Texas--one of our country's largest states) have been found, in court, to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

These challenges to voting, along with the impact of mass and disparate incarceration, pose a serious threat to our democracy and to the right of citizens to choose their own representation. 

Despite the gains that have been made, the makeup of our total population has yet to be reflected in national politics (about 61 - 62% of our country is white, according to 2015 Census data, and about 38% or more of the country is made up of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, etc.).

For example, out of its 100 members the United States Senate is:

  • 90% white and 
  • 79% male...with
  • 3 African-American Senators
  • 4 Hispanic Senators and 
  • 3 Senators of Asian-American descent 

The U.S. House of Representatives is:

  • 79% white and
  • 80% male...with
  • 46 African-American Representatives
  • 34 Hispanic-American Representatives and 
  • 12 Representatives of Asian-American descent

 

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Copyright 2016 -17 Red and Black Ink, LLC

References:

CNN. Black senator: I was stopped 7 times by police. July 13, 2016.

http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2016/07/14/senator-tim-scott-stopped-seven-times-police-sot.cnn

Department of Justice.  Federal Bureau of Investigation.  2014 Crime in the United States.  https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/persons-arrested/main

Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Trafficking Penalties.  https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ftp3.shtml

Mauer, Marc.  Testimony of Executive Director, The Sentencing Project, May 21, 2009. 

Uggen, Christopher. Larson, Ryan. Shannon, Sarah.  6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016.  Sentencing Project.  Accessed October 2016. http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/6-million-lost-voters-state-level-estimates-felony-disenfranchisement-2016/

U.S. Census Quick Facts.  Accessed October 31, 2016. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST040215/00

U.S. Department of Justice.  Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Prisoners in 2014.Imprisonment rate of sentenced state and federal prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, by demographic characteristics, December 31, 2014.  https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p14.pdf

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.  Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:  Summary of National Findings.     

United States Sentencing Commission. Impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (August 2015)

http://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/news/congressional-testimony-and-reports/drug-topics/201507_RtC_Fair-Sentencing-Act.pdf#page=15

http://www.ussc.gov/research/congressional-reports/2015-report-congress-impact-fair-sentencing-act-2010

Danita Smith