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Harsh Drug Sentences Take Their Toll On Black Lives

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Harsh Drug Sentences Take Their Toll On Black Lives

Inmates walk in San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, California, June 8, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

On a Sunday morning in late July, in a small town in southwest Alabama, Barbara Moore Knight gave her fellow church members news that brought spontaneous applause and murmurs of “Amen!” She told them that her son, James LaRon Knight, was among the drug felons whose sentences had been commuted by President Barack Obama the week before.

In 2004, Knight was convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine. Although the crime was nonviolent, he was sentenced to more than 24 years in a federal prison. The sentence was a travesty, an unduly harsh punishment for a family man never accused of running a substantial criminal enterprise.

Knight, 48, is among countless black Americans ruined by the long, costly and punitive effort to stamp out recreational use of illegal drugs. The owner of a barbershop in suburban Atlanta, he was convicted on the testimony of acquaintances who found themselves caught in the spiderweb of the criminal justice system and offered him up as a way to appease authorities. There was no direct evidence that Knight possessed or sold banned substances.

Recognizing the havoc wreaked by the so-called war on drugs, especially in black America, Obama has worked to ameliorate its effects. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the Clemency Project, which aims to reduce the disproportionately long federal sentences handed out to hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders over the past decade or so. The president has reduced or ended the prison sentences of more than 560 federal prisoners so far, most of them convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.

Obama also helped persuade Congress to reduce the inequities in federal drug-sentencing policies, which had punished those convicted of handling crack cocaine more harshly than those sentenced for powdered cocaine. (Many states retain similar inequitable statutes.) The old law gave a person convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack, which was more prevalent in poor black neighborhoods, a mandatory five-year prison sentence. But those who possessed powdered cocaine, used mostly by more affluent whites, had to have 100 times as much to draw the same sentence. The new federal law substantially narrows the disparity.

Given increasing awareness of the costs of the war on drugs and of the inequities that still haunt the criminal justice system, you’d think that the Clemency Project would have been greeted with universal support. The burden of mass incarceration falls heavily on the shoulders of black Americans, who are less likely than whites to use illegal drugs, according to research, but more likely to go to prison for drug crimes anyway.

Still, there are many prosecutors and conservative politicians who have denounced Obama’s push against mass incarceration. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, rushed to condemn Obama’s most recent commutations, claiming the president “continues to abuse executive power in an unprecedented, reckless manner.”

So the prejudices — the preconceived notions, the stereotypes, the outright racism — continue. The tragic heroin epidemic has prompted an outpouring of sympathy and calls for a less punitive approach to illegal drugs, but heroin users are overwhelmingly white. That compassion has not been extended to black Americans, who are still regarded as more drug-addled, more violent, more dangerous and more deserving of lengthy prison terms.

(Tellingly, those prejudices extend beyond the criminal justice system and into the medical establishment. According to research, doctors are less likely to prescribe heavy-duty painkillers, such as oxycodone, to black patients, even when their pain is severe. “Our data pretty clearly say it’s a race issue,” Raymond Tait, a pain researcher at Saint Louis University in Missouri, told The New York Times.)

Barbara Moore Knight describes herself as “still on cloud nine” after the news of her son’s early release. “I really do thank God for working through President Obama,” she said.

Her obvious joy notwithstanding, her family has paid dearly for America’s obsession with treating nonviolent drug crimes as existential threats to the republic. Her son’s marriage fell apart after his incarceration; he missed crucial years with his sons, who are now 27 and 14. Obama’s clemency cannot restore those pieces of a man’s life.

(Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo: Inmates walk in San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, California, June 8, 2012.     REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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1 Comment

  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 12, 2016

    In the book “Race To Incarcerate” by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer, the conservative agenda to apply law enforcement disproportionately based on the criterion of “Race” is explored with a generous supply of numerical data, timelines of various policies enforced, examples of political rhetoric that was carefully crafted to artificially increase a sense fear in the majority population that the black community in particular posed a danger to white society, and so on.

    This tactic has its origins shortly after the Emancipation of slaves was formally in place.
    Since that time, conservatives in particular had been the most vocal proponents for tightening the noose around the black community and other minority communities in America.

    Nixon’s strident call for Law and Order in his campaigns, J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with controlling and limiting the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movements, and Reagan’s pandering to racists and others by his insistence on giving the impression that blacks were the outsiders who needed to kept in check in order to garner votes, and other Conservative administrations continuation of issuing the same siren call of “fear black people”, is why law enforcement today still maintains the general stance and sentiments for the most part that the black community in general, and black males in particular, are still the bogeymen that we all need to fear.

    This careful nurturing of hostility, resentment, and fear of the other had falsely informed, and still falsely informs the minds of children and youth, black, white, brown, that there is a constant battle between “us” versus “them”. Many children, depending on skin color and/or identification according to the false and mythical metric of “Race”, grow up with this message deeply implanted in their minds. Some of them go on to become policemen, some become educators, and others become judges and legislators—many of whom continue to perpetuate the fear of “the other”.

    Again, a breakdown in the moral standing of Christianity, Judaism, and in certain instances within Islam, allows for the climate of fear to persist, and directly or indirectly promote the false premise of “The Inequality of Humankind” which among other things
    fuel a social atmosphere where many black youth become a captive to the mantra that they are “outsiders” both within a community of mostly Christians as well as in secular society outside the sphere of the Church. Little wonder that many would choose to strike back in anger or submit to what psychologists call “learned helplessness”, a condition that those who are actively oppressed no matter where they reside in the world begin to see themselves as having no options, with many turning to drugs and crime because of the strictures imposed the the dominant group in any community in the world.

    A penal system that is predisposed to automatically assume that the minority group is born to be violent, will always continue to apply sentencing in an uneven and unjust manner. The key is to break out of this vicious cycle of fear and replace the false premise with a new one—namely, “The Oneness of Humankind”. And this can never be fully achieved by enlightened law-makers, judges, and Presidents alone. Only an External Force, as represented for this Day and Age specifically, can break this cycle that corrupts the perpetrators of this imbalance in the application of justice, and disrupts the lives of entire communities and carefully destroys dreams and replace them with a void.

    Pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps works quite well for those who are already favored, have a leg up, and have the system and resources stacked in their favor in order to cater foremost to their needs; whereas pulling one’s self up has historically been illegal, or shunted areas offering little more than “Separate but Equal” which was always a false doctrine and meant to be so, courtesy mainly of conservative forces in America.

    With all that in mind, I feel it necessary to reiterate the following which streamed from the pen of Baha’u’llah:

    “…My object is none other than the betterment of the world and the tranquillity of its peoples. The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. This unity can never be achieved so long as the counsels which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed are suffered to pass unheeded….”

    Just my take on events as outlined in the article.


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