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Great News - Fewer Blacks Being Imprisoned for Drug Cases

Black America Web.com, News Analysis, Deborah Mathis Posted: May 11, 2009

Why this news has not gotten much attention raises questions about prejudices at play, but whatever the reason, it is worthy of reporting and, perhaps even, celebrating.

This is the headline, courtesy of The Sentencing Project, that dogged research and advocacy organization that fights for prison, prosecutorial, police and legal reforms: The number of African-Americans in state prisons for a drug offense declined by 21.6 percent from 1999-2005, a reduction of more than 31,000 persons.

It is, by any standard, news when a population of any sorts changes so dramatically in only a handful of years. But it is particularly noteworthy when that same population black Americans has, for so many years, been moving in the other direction.

Throughout the 1990s, the skewed war on drugs sent increasing numbers of black people to the state pen for offenses that, for their white counterparts, got no time, much less time or a bit of time in much more hospitable places. Chalk that up to the disparities in the way the laws were fashioned. Selling or using black drugs, like crack cocaine, were heavily weighted offenses compared to selling or using white drugs, like powder cocaine. In essence, black druggies were treated as more heinous than were white druggies.

And there you had it: A system rigged to put black people away tightly and for long spells, creating a yawning chasm in the male to female ratio in black communities and fueling a cottage industry of prison construction. And it spawned this curious dichotomy: People who decried throwing money at public education had no such qualms about spending tax millions on shiny new jails.

And, finally, the woeful trend brought us all of those studies and news reports about the one-in-three or one-in-four black males who were somehow tied up in the criminal justice system. Those were the headlines we were used to.

Now, there is this one. And, chances are, this is the first youve heard of it. The Sentencing Projects new report, The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs, was released last month, but it has been greeted, largely, by radio silence.

True, the report does not herald the kind of breakthrough that would be worthy of nationwide rejoicing that is, the end of the illegal drug trade and, with it, the obsolescence of drug courts, mandatory sentencing and prison expansion.

But, a decline especially a significant one such as this is something to talk about. It is news because it is new.

The decline in the number of African-Americans incarcerated for drug offenses is a significant development, coming as it does after several decades of unprecedented expansion in incarceration of people of color, the report concludes. Hopefully, the researchers suggest that lawmakers and policymakers might be seeing a gleam of light, recognizing the lock-em-up tact as a long-term failure.

But it also offers this depressing fact: (T)here are still 900,000 African-Americans incarcerated in the nations prisons and jails. To place this in context, at the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, that figure was 100,000. So despite a half century of advances in social and economic opportunity, the role of incarceration in the lives of African-Americans persists to a degree that was unimaginable just a few decades ago.

How we long for the day that the good news comes without a disclaimer.

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