Sounding the Alarm

Nearly one in three young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under criminal justice supervision on any given day, according to a report issued this month by The Sentencing Project. The "War on Drugs" is the single largest factor contributing to this crisis facing the African American community.

Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later, walks in the footsteps of a similar Sentencing Project report released in 1990. The 1990 report found that nearly one in four African American males in the age group 20-29 was under some form of criminal justice supervision -- in prison or jail, on probation or on parole. While that report generated extensive national attention and dialogue, "get-tough" attitudes and policies nevertheless have continued to intensify. With the new wave of harsh sentencing laws recently passed (e.g. Three-Strikes You're Out), the one in three figure is set to get even worse, soon. For example, a 1995 survey by Corrections Compendium found that state corrections officials expect their 1994 inmate populations to rise 51% by the year 2000.

"If one in three young white men were under criminal justice supervision, the nation would declare a national emergency," said Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project and co-author of the study.

The key findings of Five Years Later are as follows:

The report recommends, among other things, promotion of "a renewed dialogue on drug policy," noting that former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was disciplined for advocating a discussion of a broad range of policy options. The report also notes that because the one in three figure holds for any given day, an examination of the data over the course of a year or several years would yield much higher rates.

US Drug Czar Lee Brown stated "The report is exactly right. You can't arrest your way out of the drug problem. You can't incarcerate your way out of it, you can't execute your way out of it." Brown's progressive language fails to translate into positive impetus for policy change on the part of the Clinton administration, however. The Department of Justice, for example, ignored its own 1994 report on mandatory minimum sentencing, and now has sided with the Republican-dominated Congress in opposing the Sentencing Commission's downward revision of crack cocaine sentences to the level of powder cocaine (see Legislative Alerts). The crack/powder disparity is a major factor in the racial bias in today's criminal justice system.

"The War on Drugs has decimated my community," says Merry Frank, a social worker from Oakland, CA. "I'm only in the schools one day a week now, because of funding cuts. But if I want to, I can find work in the prisons. What is wrong with this picture?"

Copies of Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System can be purchased for $8 from The Sentencing Project, 918 F St. NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC 20004; (202) 628-0871.

From The Activist Guide, Issue #7, October '95, DRCNet Publications section, A Guided Tour of the War on Drugs home page.

The next article is: 1 1/2 Million Americans in Prison.