American communities in the inner city have been plagued by the war on drugs since it started 25 years ago. Criminologists and sociologists have been pointing out for eons that drug laws, which have filled prisons and jails across the country to overflow levels for decades, are grossly ineffective. Rather than ending violence in the community, drug laws pull millions of people who don't really belong there into the criminal justice system, creating an underclass of stigmatized ex-cons with little stake in society. Drug laws--and surely this would pass any test for irony--actually create conditions that foster crime in the inner city.
Yet mandatory minimums, an intense policing of communities of color and a lack of rehabilitative programs remain the cornerstone of managing crime in American cities. Politicians, afraid of seeming soft on crime, have done little to revise the failed policies of the war on drugs.
In this context, Barack Obama's platform on criminal justice, woven as it is into a discussion of civil rights, is striking. Obama embraces an approach to crime that is actually informed by research and expert recommendations. Given the gross irrationality that informs most politicians' approach to crime, Obama's logical and potentially effective proposals are remarkable.
The Obama/Biden plan is neither abstract nor ideological--it targets the root causes of racial disparity in the criminal justice system in the United States. Four key suggestions in the Obama/Biden platform:
Eliminating Mandatory Minimums:
Mandatory minimum sentences, introduced in the late 1980s, were meant to tame the seemingly uncontrollable urban violence that accompanied the inner-city crack epidemic. Possessing or selling 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powder cocaine put people in jail for at least five years. We've known for a decade that this knee-jerk reaction to drug possession costs taxpayers millions of dollars, far more than rehabilitation programs.
Eliminating Disparity in Crack/Cocaine Sentencing:
Possessing crack, a form of cocaine, holds its own unique penalties, as the example above suggests. Misperceptions of crack as a drug favored by blacks have also fueled arrests of African-Americans. "Despite the fact that two-thirds of regular crack cocaine users are white or Latino, 82% of defendants sentenced in federal court for crack offenses are African American," explains the Sentencing Project in a 2007 report synthesizing years of scholarly research on the drug wars.
Following a recommendation by the United States Sentencing Commission, effective March 2008, the Federal Court has been reexamining cases where defendants were given disparate sentences for possessing crack. Still, crack is the only drug to have a mandatory minimum (of five years) for simple possession. Joe Biden, one of the original authors of the minimum laws, called for their repeal in a bill introduced last year, arguing that the laws were based on faulty information about the differences between crack and cocaine. There's good reason to believe that this issue will receive serious attention in an Obama/Biden administration.
Establishing Reentry Programs:
We need reentry programs for formerly incarcerated men and women because of these failed drug war policies. What formerly incarcerated men and women need most after prison or jail is just what most lack prior to incarceration: decent housing and steady work. Programs that facilitate access to housing and employment help to reduce recidivism rates.
"Well-designed programs have been found to improve employment and reduce recidivism," Harvard professor Bruce Western explained in congressional testimony in 2007. Bruce urged Congress to "support prisoner re-entry programs that provide transitional employment and other services." An integrated approach is essential to reintegrating people released from prison, and Bruce urged Congress to consider providing "housing, drug treatment, and health care to improve the job readiness of released-prisoners."
Such opportunities help men and women build new lives that aren't defined by their criminal record and keep them from committing more crimes.
Establishing Drug Courts:
Drug courts create a place for low-level offenders to connect with treatment options as an alternative to incarceration. As the Government Accountability Office explained to Congress in 2005: "In most of the evaluations we reviewed, adult drug court programs led to recidivism reductions during periods of time that generally corresponded to the length of the drug court program." Drug courts can manage addicts and low-level offenders, saving limited resources to be aimed at serious criminals.
McCain's answer to these issues? His sole sop to the mess created by the drug wars is an embrace of the faith-based funding initiatives championed by George W. Bush: in other words, ineffective political pandering. Those who are most in need of reentry services, which is what the faith-based money is earmarked for, are often not connected to the churches that will receive this funding. McCain's plan does nothing to dismantle the systemic problems that have produced racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Instead, McCain's crime plan as it pertains to people of color will focus on illegal immigration, increasing policing of communities of color.
How the Obama/Biden platform presents their criminal justice platform is telling too. The Democrats wrap their suggestions for reform into a larger narrative about civil rights protections in the United States, which they suggest have been woefully neglected during the Bush administration. McCain, in contrast, wraps his crime platform into a larger narrative about strengthening law enforcement, including a statements about funneling federal money to local law enforcements agencies to send illegal immigrants back home and assurances that law enforcement will not be thwarted by "judicial activism."
Progressives have had significant points of contention with the Obama campaign this year, and they've been right to fault Obama on issues such as FISA. But make no mistake about this: there is a profound difference between McCain and Obama. These Obama/Biden proposals, if enacted, could make a striking difference in the lives of inner city residents across the country.
A civil rights lawyer for president seems like just what the country needs to fix the systemic disaster started decades ago with the drug wars.
This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.
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