Calling on Candidates to Address Race and Incarceration

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While race is a major subtext in this year’s presidential campaign, the candidates rarely mention the issue area where racial bias in America takes its most virulent form, namely criminal justice policies and practices. The CA observes this racism when we inspect conditions inside New York City’s court pens that confine recently arrested persons. On some days, we will see not one white face, but cell after cell filled with black and brown people. The term “disproportionate confinement of minorities” fails to capture the reality. It is more accurate to say “exclusive” confinement. Given our experience, it is not surprising that the incarceration rate for African Americans in New York today is higher than for blacks in South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

Statistics show that the brunt of the so-called war on drugs falls on poor communities of color. About three-fourths of the nation’s incarcerated individuals locked up for drug offenses are minorities–this, despite research demonstrating that the majority of drug users and sellers are white. In New York, the figures are even more stark: 90% of people convicted of drug crimes in state prison for the sale or possession of narcotics are African American or Latino. If current trends continue, one of every three black males born in the United States today can expect to serve time in prison.

Studies have found that drug treatment programs, while much less costly, are more successful than imprisonment in reducing drug abuse and crime and in increasing people convicted of drug crimes’ ability to find and hold jobs. If our nation’s leaders are wary of the political liabilities they would incur by advocating for sentencing reform and treatment alternatives, they can take courage from polls demonstrating widespread public support for these kinds of measures. In addition, this past June, the United States Conference of Mayors, representing the mayors of America’s large cities, unanimously approved a resolution declaring the failure of the war on drugs, condemning mandatory minimum sentences, and calling for more treatment programs. Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker said: “The drug war is causing crime. It’s chewing up young black men. And it’s killing Newark.”

The nation’s, and New York’s, criminal justice policy is not aimed at problem solving, but designed, at best, to achieve a pernicious kind of containment. It is inflicted on mainly low-income inner city people of color who are politically powerless and without the capacity to protect themselves from government abuse or neglect. Prisons have become the blunt instrument of a regressive social policy and it is long past due that our country’s leaders, those in high office and those who aspire to it, stand up on these issues and put a stop to the political folly and moral shame of our time.