Pubdate: Sun, 08 Apr 2007
Source: Day, The (New London,CT)
Copyright: 2007 The Day Publishing Co.
Author: Arianna Huffington
Cited: The 2006 ACLU report
Referenced: Bill Clinton's OPED
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)


THERE IS ONE SUBJECT BEING forgotten in the 2008 Democratic race for 
the White House. While all the major candidates are vying for the 
black and Latino vote, they are completely ignoring one of the most 
pressing issues affecting those constituencies: the failed "war on 
drugs" -- a war that has morphed into a war on people of color.

Consider this: According to a 2006 report by the American Civil 
Liberties Union, African-Americans make up an estimated 15 percent of 
drug users, but they account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug 
charges, 59 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of all drug 
offenders sentenced to prison. Or consider this: The United States 
has 260,000 people in state prisons on nonviolent drug charges; 
183,200 (more than 70 percent) of them are black or Latino.

Such facts have been bandied about for years. But our politicians 
have consistently failed to take action on what has become yet 
another third rail of American politics, a subject to be avoided at 
all costs by elected officials who fear being incinerated on contact 
for being soft on crime.

Perhaps you hoped this would change during a spirited Democratic 
presidential primary? Unfortunately, a quick search of the top 
Democratic hopefuls' Web sites reveals that not one of them -- not 
Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, not John Edwards, not Joe Biden, 
not Chris Dodd, not Bill Richardson -- even mentions the drug war, 
let alone offers any solutions.

The silence coming from Clinton and Obama is particularly deafening.

Obama has written eloquently about his own struggle with drugs but 
has not addressed the tragic effect the war on drugs is having on 
African-American communities.

As for Clinton, she flew into Selma, Ala., to reinforce her image as 
the wife of the black community's most beloved politician and has 
made much of her plan to attract female voters, but she has ignored 
the suffering of poor, black women right in her own back yard.

Located down the road from her Chappaqua, N.Y., home are two prisons 
housing female inmates, Taconic and Bedford. Forty-eight percent of 
the women in Taconic are there for nonviolent drug offenses; 78 
percent of those in the prison are African-American or Latino.

And Bedford, the state's only maximum-security prison for women, is 
home to some of the worst victims of New York's draconian 
Rockefeller-era drug laws -- mothers and grandmothers whose first 
brush with the law resulted in their being locked away for 15 years 
or more on nonviolent drug charges.

Yet even though these prisons are so nearby, Clinton has turned a 
blind eye to the plight of the women locked away there, notably 
refusing to speak out on their behalf.

Avoidance of this issue comes at a very stiff price (and not just the 
more than $50 billion a year we're spending on the failed drug war). 
The toll is paid in shattered families, devastated inner cities and 
wasted lives (with no apologies for using that term).

During the 10 years I've been writing about the injustice of the drug 
war, I've repeatedly watched as politicians paid lip service to the 
problem but then ducked as the sickening status quo claimed more 
victims. Here in California, of the 171,000 inmates jamming our 
wildly overcrowded prisons, 36,000 are nonviolent drug offenders.

I remember in 1999 asking Dan Bartlett, then the campaign spokesman 
for candidate George W. Bush, about Bush's position on the outrageous 
disparity between the sentences meted out for possession of crack 
cocaine and those given for possession of powder cocaine -- a 
disparity that has helped fill U.S. prisons with black low-level drug 
users (80 percent of sentenced crack defendants are black). Federal 
sentencing guidelines dictate that judges impose the same five-year 
prison sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of 
powder cocaine.

"The different sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is 
something that there's no doubt needs to be addressed," Bartlett told 
me. But in the more than six years since Bush and Bartlett moved into 
the White House, the problem has gone unaddressed. No doubt about it.

Maybe the president will suddenly wake up and decide to take on the 
issue five days before he leaves office. That's what Bill Clinton 
did, writing a 2001 New York Times op-ed article in which he 
trumpeted the need to "immediately reduce the disparity between crack 
and powder cocaine sentences" -- conveniently ignoring the fact that 
he had the power to solve it for eight years and did nothing.

When it mattered, he maintained an imperial silence. Then, when it 
didn't, he became Captain Courageous. And he lamented the failures of 
our drug policy as if he had been an innocent bystander rather than 
the chief executive (indeed, the prison population doubled on his watch).

The injustice is so egregious that a conservative senator, Jeff 
Sessions, R-Ala., is now leading the charge in Congress to ease crack 
sentences. "I believe that as a matter of law enforcement and good 
public policy, crack cocaine sentences are too heavy and can't be 
justified," he said. "People don't want us to be soft on crime, but I 
think we ought to make the law more rational."

There's a talking point Hillary and Obama should adopt. It's both the 
right thing and the smart thing. Because of disenfranchisement 
statutes, large numbers of black men who were convicted of drug 
crimes are ineligible to vote, even those who have fully paid their 
debt to society.

A 2000 study found that 1.4 million African American men -- 13 
percent of the total black male population -- were unable to vote in 
the 2000 election because of state laws barring felons from the 
polls. In Florida, 1 in 3 black men is permanently disqualified from 
voting. Think that might have made a difference in the 2000 race? Our 
shortsighted drug laws have become the 21st-century manifestation of Jim Crow.

Shouldn't this be an issue Democratic presidential candidates deem 
worthy of their attention? 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake