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A war on drugs – or on blacks?

Sunday, December 8, 1991
Another View

By Alan Ellis

The statistics have the feel of a history book, describing a shameful, unenlightened time:

One in four young black men in America between the ages of 20 and 29 is imprisoned, on parole or otherwise under the control of the criminal justice system – more than are in college. For whites, the figure is one in 16.

The United States incarcerates black males at a rate four time that of South Africa.

Though blacks make up only 12 percent of the drug users in the country, they account for a staggering 44 percent of all drug possession arrests.

In Sacramento, where 70 percent of the people sent to prison for drug offenses are black, more than 63 percent of public drug treatment slots are given to whites.

“This is scandalous,” says Sacramento District Attorney Steve White. Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge James Ford pronounces the situation “at least as serious as the Jim Crow conduct was 30 or 40 years ago.”

As the war on drugs continues to be targeted in the black community, it has become a war on black people. Under this nation’s current war on drugs, black America is being criminalized at an astounding rate.

In spite of the fact that whites sell most of the nation’s cocaine and account for 80 percent of its customers, it is blacks and other minorities who continue to fill up America’s courtrooms and jails, largely because, in a political climate that demands a quick fix to the drug problem, they are the easiest citizens to arrest.

Indeed, throughout America, blacks and Latinos report that their neighborhoods have been barricaded by the authorities; that roadblocks, similar to those in south Africa, have been set up for “identification checks;” that the police roust them from their homes, without warrants or probable cause, to search for “evidence”; that they are targeted as part of police “stop on sight” problems and that they are discriminately arrested in sweep operations for minor traffic violations.

This flagrant disregard for their constitutional rights is causing an interesting phenomenon in cities throughout the nation.

In New York, hundreds of black and Hispanic men have been caught in the New York Port Authority’s drug courier interdiction net. Once a suspect has been targeted by Port Authority police as fitting a “drug courier profile,” he is usually followed on board the bus, questioned, and eventually asked to permit a search of his bags. He is never told that he has the right to refuse.

What makes these stops particularly outrageous is the fact that it seems that only lower-income blacks and Hispanics, who cannot afford more expensive means of transportation, are being stopped.

As New York Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman aptly put it in one of her decisions on the issue, “Minorities did not fight their way up from the back of the bus just to be routinely stopped and interrogated on the way to the terminal.”

In Boston, police have made a “substantial” number of unconstitutional stops and searches of black youths, including strip searches conducted on public streets, according to a report issued in December 1990 by Massachusetts Attorney General James M. Shannon.

According to the report, these illegal searches were a result of public statements by commanding officers that minority youths in certain areas of Boston, particularly individuals suspected as being associated with gangs, should be stopped and frisked or searched, regardless of whether they were engaging in illegal activity and regardless of the constitutional rights.”

In Florida, state researchers predict that by 1984, nearly half of the black men between 18 and 24 years old will be locked up or under court supervision. As a consequence, a large segment of the black male population will be permanently removed from the job market and the mainstream of society by the stigma and disability of a drug conviction.

As the United States continues to incarcerate more individuals at a rate higher than any other nation in the world, including South Africa and the Soviet Union, black communities will be further devastated by the loss of their young men to the criminal justice system.

Congress and every state legislature must wake up to this reality. They should be in the forefront of remedying discrimination in the criminal justice system wherever it occurs.

A promising start would be passage of the Racial Justice Act recently rejected by Congress which would eliminate racial discrimination in the imposition of the death penalty.

Equally important would be the prohibition of discriminatory, suspicionless stops now permitted by the Supreme Court’s recent Florida vs. Bostick decision.

Congress and the California legislatures would also do well to eliminate socio=economic disparities in pre-trial detention where only the well-to-do are able to post bond to secure their release pending trial.

Another enlightened step would be to restrict public housing evictions for drug activity where innocent family members are made homeless through the wrongdoing of one of their wayward relatives.

In this the year of the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the emergence of democracy in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the repeal of South Africa’s harsh apartheid laws, it has never been more important than we as Americans honor my basic and fundamental tenet of freedom – “Equal Justice Under Law.”

The Law Offices of Alan Ellis specializing In Federal Sentencing, Appeals, 2255 Habeas Corpus