Pubdate: Sat, 17 Aug 2013
Source: Albany Herald, The (GA)
Copyright: 2013 The Albany Herald Publishing Company, Inc.
Author: Cynthia Tucker


Since his first year in office, President Obama
has drawn scathing critiques from a handful of
prominent black critics, mostly for his failure
to pursue an explicit =93black=94 agenda aimed at
ameliorating the legacy of racism.

Usually, I disagree with those critics, who are
unrealistic about the limits of the presidency,
unfair in their assessments of Obama's broader
agenda and, most important, bizarrely naive about
the tightrope he walks as the first black man to
win the office. If he announced a =93black=94 agenda,
the rest of his presidency would be swallowed up by the ensuing controversy.

But there is one area where I believe Obama has
failed black America: He has done next to nothing
to rein in the so-called war on drugs. After
decades of hyper-punitive policies that have
excommunicated thousands of black men from the
economic mainstream, Obama might have begun to
substantially wind down his era's Prohibition.

Now, Attorney General Eric Holder is drawing
praise for announcing a new policy intended to
curb the fanatical, yet futile, drug war.
Speaking to the American Bar Association
recently, Holder said he would limit the use of
mandatory minimum sentences that have resulted in
long prison stretches for low-level offenders.

Tough mandatory sentences became popular years
ago, when violent crime was still rising and
prosecutors and politicians salved public fear by
backing stiffer penalties =AD even for non-violent
crimes. The result has been a staggering increase
in the prison population. The United States
accounts for about 5 percent of the world's
people but nearly 25 percent of its prison inmates.

Discriminatory enforcement has exacerbated the
problem of draconian drug laws, and Holder knows
all too well that racial bias remains pervasive
in the criminal justice system. In his speech, he
pointed to research that found =93black male
offenders have received sentences nearly 20
percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar

But Holder's new policy, even if it works as well
as he hopes, would do precious little to scale
back the staggeringly expensive and unbelievably
destructive drug war. For one thing, the
beneficiaries of his new policy represent a high
percentage of the federal prison population but a
tiny portion of the prison population overall.
Most inmates are in state facilities.

Holder is hardly taking a bold step. Crime has
declined so steeply over the last 15 years that
there is very little political risk in shorter
sentences for drug offenses. Spurred by
overcrowded prisons and tight state budgets, even
conservative governors and state legislators have
begun to back away from imposing draconian prison
sentences. In Georgia, for example, Republican
Gov. Nathan Deal and a GOP-dominated legislature
have already pushed through significant criminal
justice reform, including lesser punishments for low-level drug offenders.

If the Obama administration really wanted to
leave a legacy of a fairer criminal justice
system, it would decriminalize marijuana use at
the federal level. Such a policy could help black
citizens disproportionately without the
controversy of an explicit =93black=94 agenda. The
American Civil Liberties Union reported in June
that black Americans are almost four times more
likely to be arrested for marijuana possession
than white people, even though blacks and whites
use the drug at about the same rate.

Obama can't change marijuana policy at the state
level, but he could use his bully pulpit to move
recalcitrant state authorities into the 21st
century. According to an April Washington Post
poll, 52 percent of Americans believe it should
be legal. Indeed, voters in Colorado and
Washington state have voted to legalize recreational use.

How has the Obama administration reacted to those
states? By insisting on keeping the federal
government's preposterous policy that bans
marijuana for all purposes and even prohibits
scientific research on cannabis. That's puzzling
and unfortunate, especially since the president
has freely admitted using marijuana as a
teenager. While he managed to escape the long arm
of the law, many black men have not.

Obama knows that, and it's disappointing that he
has done so very little about it.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom