Speaking at Howard University in April, I argued that big government is no friend to black Americans. The New York Times article earlier this month "Blacks Are Singled Out for Marijuana Arrests, Federal Data Suggests" reminded me how true this was.
A report released recently by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that nationally, blacks were four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. It also indicated that these unfortunate numbers were true despite the fact that marijuana use is about the same for both black and white Americans.
Why is this happening? Why the vast disparity?
I spend so much time battling our gargantuan federal government that I can't possibly manage to keep up with all the damage it does, everywhere, every day and in so many countless ways. As former White House adviser David Axelrod said recently in defending Obama over the IRS scandal: "Part of being president is there's so much beneath you that you can't know because the government is so vast."
Interestingly, neither Axelrod nor Obama have ever shown much interest in taming the federal beast. In fact, virtually every solution they offer involves making government bigger. This often leaves the individual American citizen defenseless against a "vast" system that even its greatest champions can't outline, comprehend or be held accountable for.
Black Americans are being imprisoned far more than white Americans for marijuana possession for one primary reason: the federal government subsidizes it.
The New York Times reported: "Federal programs… continue to provide incentives for racial profiling, the report said, by including arrest numbers in its performance measures when distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to local law enforcement each year."
So, federal dollars are awarded to states or precincts that produce the right numbers? This alone is troubling because it incentivizes law enforcement to arrest as many people as it can. But why do black Americans get arrested far more than whites? The Times' continued: "Phillip Atiba Goff, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that police departments, partly driven by a desire to increase their drug arrest statistics, can concentrate on minority or poorer neighborhoods to meet numerical goals, focusing on low-level offenses that are easier, quicker and cheaper than investigating serious felony crimes."
Professor Goff concludes: "Whenever federal funding agencies encourage law enforcement to meet numerical arrest goals instead of public safety goals, it will likely promote stereotype-based policing and we can expect these sorts of racial gaps."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and I have co-sponsored legislation that would effectively get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing. Due to mandatory minimums, many non-violent drug offenders have been imprisoned alongside rapists and murderers — often for sentences longer than rapists and murders. Many people's lives have been damaged or ruined for making one mistake, usually while these people are still young and more prone to make mistakes.
If alleged drug abusers George W. Bush and Barack Obama got caught and were penalized under our current mandatory minimum laws, both men would've been barely employable, not future presidents.
Mandatory minimums most harm those lacking in the means to defend themselves. These laws disproportionately target the poor and minorities. Getting rid of mandatory minimums simply means allowing judges to use their discretion in sentencing, rather than having to follow the current, draconian federal parameters that are totally detached from the very human situation at hand.
Similarly, why do we have a system that encourages police officers to arrest people against their better judgment as a revenue incentive? Why don't we allow local enforcement and courts to deal with these crimes on a case-by-case basis, without federal incentives to incarcerate more people?
Conservatives have long understood federal welfare programs haven't lessened the problem of poverty, only subsidized it. The federal government now also subsidizes, apparently, the imprisonment of non-violent drug offenders, particularly African Americans. It's not wise to make it financially attractive to keep people unemployed. It's not moral to make it financially attractive to keep people in jail.
I'm against drug use. I think anyone who encourages its use is wrong and is doing damage to society. But our current federal policies have done little to actually lessen drug use, while doing irreparable damage to even the most casual drug users — young men and women who've made mistakes just as a young Bush and Obama allegedly did.
The Tea Party has learned about government targeting, via the IRS. The Associated Press learned about this when the Department of Justice seized its phone records. Verizon customers learned about this when the National Security Agency collected their phone data.
Some African Americans have said that our justice system is often stacked against them. Some claim they feel they have been unfairly targeted. In the case of punishing people for marijuana possession, this turns out to be true.
Our government is simply too big and too out-of-control. When it comes to receiving fair justice, perhaps black Americans understand this best.
June 24, 2013
USA Today | Columnists' Opinions