The Drug War's Unequal Justice

The Drug War's Unequal Justice
Posted by FoM on June 09, 2000 at 12:55:17 PT
By Arianna Huffington
Source: Arianna Online
Throughout the 20th century, which saw more than its share of inhumanity, the most common excuse about why such things were allowed to happen was ``We didn't know.'' Well, after the report that Human Rights Watch released Thursday (June 8), we will no longer be able to use ignorance to shield us from the reality of the racial injustice being perpetrated every day in America in the name of the drug war -- completely ignored by national political leaders and barely acknowledged by the media. 
The report, ``Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs,'' features a groundbreaking state-by-state analysis of the role race and drugs play in prison admissions. When 10 states -- including Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and West Virginia -- send black men to prison on drug charges at a rate 27 to 57 times higher than white men, how can we continue to boast about our ``equal protection under the law'' when it's so obviously not true for so many people? The cookie-cutter excuse is that the unequal sentencing reflects an unequal use of drugs. Well, that excuse has also expired -- in fact, five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, yet 62 percent of drug offenders sent to state prisons nationwide are black. In certain states, that number climbs to an almost unbelievable 90 percent. So much for equal protection. But the depth of this tragedy cannot be adequately communicated through statistics -- no matter how outrageous. It can only be conveyed through the personal stories of what this injustice has wrought not only on the nonviolent offenders but on their families and especially their children. Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Family Watch and the November Coalition perform a great public service by putting flesh and blood on the statistics. ``Dear judge, I need my mom. Would you help my mom,'' reads a note written in the 9-year-old scrawl of Phillip Gaines, just before his mother was sentenced to nearly 20 years after associates of her crack-dealing former boyfriend testified against her in exchange for lighter sentences. ``My birthday's comeing up in October the 25 and I need my mom to be here on the 25 and for the rest of my life. I will cut your grass and wash your car everyday just don't send my mom off. Please please please don't!'' Phillip is only one of an estimated 1.5 million children who currently have a parent in jail. Sharvone McKinnon is another African-American mother whose boyfriend -- in her case, an abusive crack dealer who threatened to kill her if she left him -- helped land her in jail. She's also a particularly chilling case study of the madness our drug laws have led to: a nonviolent, first-time offender sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiracy to distribute cocaine -- even though the government concedes she played only a tangential role and never actually used or sold drugs. But such are our draconian drug laws that even the least-culpable member of a ``conspiracy'' can be saddled with the most egregious acts of all the other conspirators. So based on the testimony of three of her 31 co-defendants that she was present at a single ``organizational meeting'' of her boyfriend's drug ring -- testimony that earned the trio serious sentence reductions -- this 34-year-old mother, a gainfully employed school-bus driver at the time of her arrest, will now spend the rest of her life in prison (at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $21,000 per year). I don't know about you, but I feel a whole lot safer. ``One of the problems of our justice system,'' a U.S. District Court judge told me, ``is that the government is settling for very small fish that are easy to catch and easy to punish. The big ones aren't being pursued.'' Indeed, the inequality of the legal representation available to most poor defendants makes further mockery of the promise of equal justice for all. The silence of both major parties and their nominees on this widespread injustice is the starkest example of the bankruptcy of the two-party system. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has endorsed Al Gore and will be campaigning for him, is not pulling his punches. ``On this matter,'' he told me, ``we have one party with two names, or two parties with one assumption. The assumption is that these lives can be thrown away. The change we seek can only come outside the two parties. In the same way that it took a movement to bring about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, it's going to take a movement to put an end to this tragic undermining of hard-fought civil rights victories.'' The Human Rights Watch report makes it impossible for our leaders to claim they didn't know. Now it's up to us to demand some answers and an end to the inhumanity. Discuss This Column and More in the Forum: OnlinePosted: June 8, 20001158 26th Street, P.O. Box 428Santa Monica, CA 90403email: arianna ariannaonline.comCopyright  1998 Christabella, Inc.Developed and hosted by BOLD NEW WORLD NewsHawk: DdC Articles & Web Site:Human Rights Watch FOCUS Alert #174 Friday June 9, 2000 Whites Use Drugs, More Blacks Imprisoned On Drugs is Stacked Against Blacks Arianna HuffingtonThe War On Drugs: Just Say No More Articles On Arianna Huffington:
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