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Far Beneath the Arc of Justice

The Other Side of the Tracks Commentary August 13, 2013 by Perry Redd

The US is facing massive overcrowding in its prisons according to Attorney General Eric Holder and his Justice Department. This has been a fact for at least two decades. This is why we use the term “revolving door” in prisons. Now he is calling for major changes to the nation’s criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes. This is a just solution that is well overdue.

The fact that overcrowding of US prisons is no result of rampant crime is not news to those of us in Black communities. One crime always feels like too much no matter where you live. Crime is just as problematic in white communities. That’s why white people invest in code-security locks, alarm systems and surveillance cameras. White Americans seem to find the answer to crime: fly.

White people are the originators of “white flight.” Black people didn’t start that (or did they?). Whenever Blacks pursued The American Dream, white American either created obstacles, contorted the rules or denied opportunities for Blacks. Creating the coveted gated community was an answer that proved unfruitful in the long run. What was fruitful was hyper-legislation, like the crack laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. The US drug policy was simply another tool to precipitate denial of the American Dream for Blacks.

We all know the history of the “war on drugs” by now began by the Nixon administration. The result was the creation of new jobs and affordable housing programs: prisons.

The case of the US vs. Brisbane, 367 F.3d 910, 911 (D.C. Cir. 2004) is instructive to how creating race neutral policies can be diabolically genius. I did time with Brisbane and only the words from his mouth made the disparity between crack and powder cocaine non-sensical. His lawyer was no help in making the sensible argument to the court as he was sentenced to 360 months (you do the math) in federal prison. He wasn’t educated in any Ivy League school, but he understood what chemists understood—and likely US legislators—about the comparative nature of the two forms of cocaine that different races of Americans were sentenced to.

Now, this could be chalked up to serendipity; some pleasant, accidental finding. Nut sentencing Black males was no accident. Coming to the solution 20 years later wasn’t either. These policies were intentionally designed to eliminate the competition of Black males to white males in American society…mission accomplished. Unemployment is double for Blacks compared to whites; the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Latino households. Hell, in 2010, some 30 percent of the DC’s Black men were arrested, compared to two percent of their white counterparts.

Attorney General Holder’s remarks before the American Bar Association in San Francisco have been called brilliant by some. I would call them overdue, thus timely. Holder also favors diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expanding a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders…about damned time.

Unfortunately, this “War on Drugs” has irreparably damaged three generations of Black people, who’s offspring will have to run a race 70 yards behind the starting line. There nothing just about this. Here is the right time in America for reparations. I know you’ll say, “better late than never,” but I’ll say “change, now—and make it right.” In this case, the remedy falls far beneath the arc of justice.


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