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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray.

You know their names; you’ve heard them countless times in newscasts and read them in newspaper headlines. They make up a police dishonor roll: unarmed black men who’ve been killed by law enforcement officials or who’ve died in their custody.

Yet, the controversy that has attended those deaths owes more to a quiet and slow-running civic revolution than to the attention of journalists, the passions of activists, or the decisions of higher authorities.

If crime rates were still high, if the numbers of murders, armed robberies, and violent assaults were still vaulting to new records, many people wouldn’t care what happened to Rice or Garner or Gray. They’d believe they deserved what they got. Such is the power of police officers when crime seems out of control.

But crime rates have fallen sharply over the last few decades — down, in 2013, to 1978’s levels. Let’s hope the relative safety of our streets allows us to reconsider not only police brutality but also the prison-industrial complex.

The United States locks up a larger proportion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. While we have about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, we house about 22 percent of its prisoners, according to researchers. That’s simply, well, criminal.

And mass incarceration has exacted a terrible cost — on state budgets, on black neighborhoods, on economic and social justice. According to federal statistics, one in three black men can expect to be imprisoned in their lifetimes.

The misnamed War on Drugs has probably done more to exacerbate black poverty and destroy black families than any other force of the last 50 years. Countless black men have been incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. They leave prison burdened by felony records that make them unemployable.

Some conservative criminologists continue to insist that crime rates have fallen because we lock up so many of the bad guys. They’re likely wrong.

To be fair, no one knows for sure why crime is down and keeps falling. But it’s happening throughout the developed world — including in countries, such as Canada, where authorities don’t lock up nearly as many citizens.

Leading politicians — including one or two brave Republicans — have already called for criminal justice reform. Last month, Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton gave a major address in which she outlined proposals that included alternatives to mass incarceration.

“There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes. And an estimated 1.5 million black men are ‘missing’ from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death,” she noted.

Among Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, has joined with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to author a bill that would help nonviolent offenders seal their records. And Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has reached across the aisle to co-author a bill with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to help eligible prisoners reduce their time.

But the truth is that any substantial progress will have to come through governors and state legislatures; federal authorities have jurisdiction over only about 6 percent of prison inmates. The vast majority of criminal activity is governed by state and local courts.

That’s why a new partnership between ultra-conservative groups and liberal activists who want to reduce the incarceration rate, the Coalition for Public Safety, is so promising. Its backers include the Koch brothers and the American Civil Liberties Union. That sort of alliance ought to prove powerful.

And it will need to be. Most statehouses are controlled by Republicans, who still reflexively play to a conservative base easily whipped up by fear of crime. Few politicians want to face an opponent who accuses them of being soft on murderers or rapists.

But the drop in crime is real, and it provides an opportunity for any thinking legislator to reconsider mass incarceration. We are locking up too many of our citizens and paying too high a price.

(Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]

Photo: Neon Tammy via Flickr

  • Alvin Harrison


    Ahhh…the drug war. We love to declare “war” on problems. Unfortunately this is a war that we cannot win, and fighting it is costing countless lives and untold billions. Why not just surrender?

    Will some people fall by the wayside? Undoubtedly. I would suggest that they would fall anyway….and are falling. Would more people fall prey to drugs if they were legal…possibly.

    Here is the problem we face. Americans want a quick fix to the drug issue. There is no quick fix. We must start at the earliest age possible, teaching children the dangers of drugs. We must solve the many social ills that cause the desperation and despair that foster drug use. We have to be less hypocritical. The vast majority of Americans use one drug or another. Prescription pills, nicotine….alcohol. Alcohol is the big one that comes to mind…it is legal and readily available. Yes we have lost some to it….but I suggest they would have been lost anyway. But what did we gain by it’s legalization? We ended criminal enterprises involved in it’s supply during prohibition and gained control over it’s supply and quality.

    We have not been able to stop the supply or distribution of drugs by any method tried so far. Interdiction does not work. Stiff criminal penalties do not work.There are countries where the death penalty is applied for drug offenses and yet the supply is never ending. There is too much money to be made when drugs are illegal.

    Here is my suggestion. It took 40 years or so to get to this point, but Americans want a quick fix. There is no quick fix. First.. We legalize and distribute ALL drugs as we do now in many states with marijuana. We control the quality and tax these drugs. Overnight the criminal organizations would disappear like they did after prohibition was repealed. We could use the money saved in the interdiction, prosecution and incarceration of drug criminals elsewhere…education, job programs, infrastructure maintenance. The list of things we could do with the billions saved is endless, including REAL and readily available rehabilitation programs to help those that want to kick their habits.

    In addition we use a good portion of the money taxed on drugs to educate the young, at an early age, about the effects of drugs. A Pope once said “give me a child between the ages of one and five…and he will be a Catholic for life”. Yes it might take 30 years to eliminate drug use, but we have tried 40 years of something that did and does not work….so a new plan is obviously needed. That is… unless your goal is to use the “war” on drugs as an income stream and economic base …like manufacturing. That’s right…a lot of people are making a lot of money with the war as it is…and not just criminals. Criminal justice and its related industries is big business…get rid of drug criminals and that business takes a HUGE hit. It is time to decide what our real aim is….stopping drug use or using it’s criminality to maintain a profitable industry and control certain populations.