Right on the heels of DRCNet's editorial, flogging Big Media for its poor drug war coverage, the NY Times has gone and made us look bad by having a relatively good week. (Our editorial comment was aimed at the media in general and not at the Times specifically, though their slogan was featured. First, this past Sunday, July 20, the Times' Magazine's cover story ("Just Say Sometimes" by Michael Pollan) was an excellent piece about medical marijuana and how the issue is turning absolutist drug war rhetoric into a much more nuanced dialogue between the people and the government.
Then, on Wednesday, July 23 the Times printed an editorial supportive of the narrowing of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, "Rationality in Crack Sentencing", even going so far as to state: "The real question is whether there should be any harsher penalties at all for crack than for powdered cocaine."
While we applaud the Times' editorial response, we feel this particular disparity is only the tip of the iceberg in a much larger problem. A 1995 study by The Sentencing Project found that nearly 1 in 3 African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 were under some form of correctional supervision -- prison, jail, probation or parole -- on any given day, meaning the percentage who undergo correctional control at some time is larger. Astonishing percentages of young black men in our major cities enter prison at some time during their lives. Though data on the percentages incarcerated for drug offenses are unavailable, the Sentencing Project blamed the dramatic increase in incarceration of the last 15 years on drug policies.
An officer during the Vietnam War once explained that he had destroyed a village in order to "liberate" it. Drug warriors like James O'Gara of the "Philanthropy Roundtable" are much like this officer, wanting to "save" the inner cities by removing huge numbers of young blacks to prisons for long periods of time. As contracting of prison labor by private industry becomes widespread, many of these men, and a growing number of women, are put to work at wages that might colloquially be termed "slave labor". Meanwhile, the drug industry out on the streets replaces their lost workers with new young men and women, who can then be sent to prison, etc., etc. Result: bigger prisons, no reduction in availability of drugs.
While opinion in the black community is divided on this issue, as in the majority community, a growing number of African Americans are coming to perceive the war on drugs as a new and creative form of racist oppression. The sentencing disparity between two different forms of cocaine -- one of them associated in the popular consciousness with whites and the other with blacks -- is the system's most extreme, explicit expression of injustice. Hence, it has become a symbol and a rallying point for advocates of sentencing reform -- but is still mainly a symbol for the larger, fundamental changes that are needed.
Another point that can be used in your letters is that the violence that the O'Gara types use to justify harsher crack sentencing is caused mainly by Prohibition, not use of crack, and was precipitated in particular by the institution of the mandatory minimums themselves in 1986. Criminologist Alfred Blumstein has explained that by dramatically increasing penalties on adults, the cost of hiring an adult to deal drugs relative to hiring a kid was greatly increased. Hence, the drug-selling organizations, always conscious of their bottom line, recruited large numbers of young people into the drug trade, who of course then had to carry guns -- on the street, into the schools, wherever they went. Guns then became perceived as a necessary commodity and a status symbol, diffusing into the general youth population beyond those participating in the drug trade. While homicide rates have been dropping for several years, gun violence by youth have increased very sharply. The mandatory minimums can be blamed for precipitating an epidemic of teen gun violence.
Please pick some of these points, or others that you've thought of, and send a letter to the editor to the New York Times. You can submit it by e-mail to [email protected], mail it to New York Times, Letters to the Editor, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036-3959, or fax it to (212) 556-3622. Remember to include your mailing address and daytime phone number with your letter; and please send a copy to DRCNet at [email protected]. You can find the Times editorial archived at http://www.nytimes.com. If you haven't visited the New York Times web site before, you'll have to first register for a free account.
There are many more angles on which comment can be made on this issue and which you might want to consider for your letters. You can learn some of them from this week's hotline alert on the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, at http://www.famm.org/hotline.html. If you haven't responded to this week's legislative alert, please read it at http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1997/7-22-1.html and take a few moments to contact your legislators and the President.