As DRCNet briefly noted last week, a new umbrella grouping of African-American professional associations dedicated to winning changes in the war on drugs has emerged (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/359/naadpc.shtml). Fueled by a shared sense that blacks bear a disproportionate burden in the drug war, the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition (NAADPC) is calling for a series of limited reforms designed to reduce the number of African Americans going to prison for drugs.
In its debut at a Capitol Hill press conference last week, the NAADCP announced a five-year program to address drug policy issues affecting African-Americans. The umbrella group has identified three areas where it hopes to force changes: more and better drug treatment; increased use of pretrial diversion for drug offenders; and what it calls "therapeutic justice," or drug court-style forced treatment. The group is planning pilot programs to seek such changes in seven cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, DC, as well as the smaller cities of Huntsville, Alabama, and Flint, Michigan, and a yet to be determined city in the US Virgin Islands.
With a membership including the nation's largest African-American attorneys' group, the National Bar Association; the Howard University School of Law; the National Association of Black Sociologists; the National Association of Black Psychologists; the National Association of Black Social Workers; the National Black Nurses Association; the National Dental Association; the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.; and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the NAADPC has pulled together a stunning array of organizations to fight for drug law reform.
Founded by Clyde Bailey, the past president of the National Bar Association, the umbrella group will be led by Bailey, retired District of Columbia Senior Judge Arthur L. Burnett, and former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, currently dean of the Howard University Law School in Washington, DC.
"Our approach is a two-step approach," said Judge Burnett, whose history as a barrier-breaker goes back to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. "For people charged with nonviolent crimes like drug possession, we will try to persuade prosecutors to agree to pretrial diversion and let that person go into drug treatment. If that person complies during that period, prosecutors could drop the charges. That's what we are looking for," he told DRCNet.
"We'll look at the issue of sentencing policy and I believe we will stand with the American Bar Association's Kennedy Commission recommendations that mandatory minimum sentences should be relieved so judges have some discretion and persons who deserve treatment don't get sent to prison," the judge continued. "We will also be looking at statutes that would allow prosecutors to defer prosecution, and we want to make sure that legislative bodies appropriate enough money for appropriate treatment. We are talking about six months or a year, not those 30-day-wonder programs. Those don't work," he said.
"Legislators have to provide enough money for treatment to be effective, but that is still far cheaper than just warehousing prisoners," Burnett argued. "This would actually save money. Providing adequate treatment would stop people from committing new crimes, it would make the community safer, there would be less work for the police and the courts, and it would stop the revolving door."
"This is an idea whose time has definitely come," said Clarence Edwards, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a member of the coalition. "The drug issue has dropped off the screen in this country, but black men continue to go to prison in record numbers. We've heard the pleas from the families and friends of victims of drug-related gun violence," he told DRCNet. "One thing we know for sure is that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem."
The NAADCP did not emerge from nowhere. Instead it was the result of contacts between black attorneys and white legal drug reformers, especially those associated with Seattle's King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project (http://www.kcba.org/druglaw/) and the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (http://www.vcl.org), an association of judges and attorneys concerned that current drug policies are a disaster. Named after a predecessor group that helped end alcohol Prohibition, the VCL in its current incarnation is headed by president Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org) and executive director Roger Goodman of the King County bar's drug policy project.
"At the American Bar Association midwinter meeting in Seattle a couple of years ago, there was a presentation by leaders of various state and local bar associations, and that included one by Fred Noland, the man who kicked off the King County bar's drug policy project," recounted Sterling. "By then, the KCBA Drug Policy Project had already grown into a multi-associational coalition, and Roger was the director. Clyde Bailey, who was then president of the National Bar Association, was there and sought out Roger and said, 'I want to do this with the National Bar Association and other organizations.'" From there, said Sterling, it was a matter of phone calls and meetings. "Roger did a lot of work in helping sell this model of an inter-professional coalition to advocate for drug policy reform."
"Roger Goodman's experience in King County was definitely a model for us," concurred Judge Burnett. "Let's pull the African-American professional associations together like they did with the professional organizations in Seattle. Hopefully, that way we can make an impact."
"I think this is extraordinarily important," said Sterling. "As we've seen at conferences like 'Breaking the Chains,' the key thing in looking at drug policy reform is to ask how do we get a Congress that is highly divided and afraid of this issue to enact substantive meaningful reform. That will only happen when it is no longer perceived as politically dangerous, and indeed, is blessed by important interests that the parties represent. Only when African-Americans and others of color, as well as the women's movement, the environmental movement, and other constituencies say that drug policy reform is important, will Democrats will feel secure enough with their base to take on these issues."
The same logic is at play with the Republicans, Sterling argued. "If we want to see Republicans voting for drug reform, they must feel that their business-oriented base wants it. When the head of the US Chamber of Commerce goes to House Whip Tom DeLay and tells him they are selling a million less widgets because of the drug war, that the drug war is a strike against the bottom line of corporate America, that we can't afford prohibition -- only then will Republicans start to come onboard."
NAADPC can also serve to inoculate black drug reformers from arguments that drug reform equals legalization equals genocide, said Sterling. "If the broadest conceivable coalition of black professionals says they've studied the drug problem and they are calling for profound change, guys like former drug czar Lee Brown will no longer be able to make that charge."
Working with professional organizations which are otherwise only peripherally involved in drug policy issues means building a consensus around a minimum program, said Burnett. "For example, we are not into the controversy over whether marijuana should be legalized -- we are looking for issues with a broad consensus within our coalition. That's mainly white college kids talking about marijuana. What we're concerned about is things like the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine," he said.
Nor is the NAADPC ready to join the ranks of the outright anti-prohibitionists. But that's just fine, said Sterling. "While people who do drug policy for a living may be ready to criticize them for not going far enough, these are sophisticated people and it is important to recognize that the people involved in this will develop a comfort level with each other, and they will end up with a much more sophisticated, multi-disciplinary understanding of the problem of drug abuse," he said. "And when you have a comprehensive understanding of the problem, you begin to identify prohibition as driving the problem, not just the substances themselves of some sort of social pathologies."