Prisoners of Sentencing Politics

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by
The Boston Globe

Prisoners of Sentencing Politics

by
Derrick Z. Jackson

With odious sanctimony, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice released the annual State Department human rights report. She praised people around the world who work "to hold their leaders accountable and to achieve equal justice under the law."

The report knocked Russia's "selectivity in enforcement of the law," Burma's "abysmal" level of "indefinite detentions," Iran's "arbitrary arrests," Syria's trying of "political prisoners in criminal courts," and China's "20 percent increase over 2006 in convictions of citizens under China's overly broad state security law."In specific numbers, the report cited China's 1.8 million inmates and Russia's 889,600 prisoners, the latter of whom languish in "extremely harsh" and "overcrowded" facilities where "one in 25 was HIV-positive." Rice wrote in the report's preface, "Leaders who are insufficiently committed to reform may revert to authoritarian habits or take disastrous detours from the rule of law."

Missing from the State Department report was the disastrous detour of our own nation. Our inflexible reforms have for two decades turned nonviolent criminals into prisoners of politics.

The United States is the world's leading prison state. For the first time in our history, more than one out of every 100 adults is behind bars. We have 2.3 million people in jail or prison, according to a Pew Center on the States study released last month. Our rate of imprisonment easily beats second-place Russia and is six times the rate of China, seven times the rate of Germany or France, 10 times the rate of Italy, and 12 times the rate of Japan.

State spending on prisons has grown from $12 billion in 1987 to $49 billion last year. For that, we still have overcrowded prisons where the rate of HIV/AIDS is 2.5 times that of the general population.

The reason is not crime, not when our total levels declined in the 1990s to under those of the European Union, according to the United Nations. But the impact of mandatory federal and state drug laws enacted during the crack panic of the 1980s - and never changed when the panic over drug trade violence proved unjustified - continue to devastate communities and state budgets.

The most well known of those laws are the ones that treat possession of crack cocaine much more harshly than for being caught with powdered cocaine. The Supreme Court is taking an ever-dim view of the laws and the federal US Sentencing Commission has softened them somewhat. But there is no State Department concern for black men.

One in 15 adult black men are behind bars, compared with 1 in 106 adult white men. This is despite the fact that Americans consume illegal drugs at about their racial share of the population, that crack and powder are the same pharmacologically, and that the majority of the drug trade, including crack, is nonviolent. It is wrong that crack offenders, 70 percent of them nonviolent, spend on average 3 1/2 years more in jail (10.8 years to 7.2 years) than those convicted of powder offenses.

Of the presidential candidates, Republican John McCain is likely to march to President Bush's agenda. The Democrats are not unified in their desire to end this madness. In the 1990s, President Clinton wooed black votes, then sacrificed the black poor to his centrist politics, calling the 1994 crime bill that preserved the disparate laws the "smartest crime bill in the history of the United States."

Fourteen years later - years which include the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections that Democrats narrowly lost as 13 percent of black men could not vote because of convictions, according to the Sentencing Project - Clinton called the laws he maintained "a cancer." He pledged to "spend a significant portion of whatever life I've got left on the earth trying to fix this."

Then again, Clinton is still sacrificing black people, almost single-handedly inciting a stampede of undecided black voters from his wife's presidential campaign toward Barack Obama with ham-handed, racially tinged denigration of Obama.

Both Hillary Clinton and Obama say the laws are unfair. But only Obama approved of the recent decision by the bipartisan Sentencing Commission to "mitigate the unwarranted sentencing disparity" by granting mild retroactive reductions of crack sentences for mostly nonviolent offenders. Clinton's response was, "I have problems with retroactivity." As Condoleezza Rice rails about nations insufficiently committed to reform, we remain at high risk at home of staying on our disastrous detour.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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