William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun
OKLA. CITY —
Michelle Alexander is a law professor at Ohio State University who has recently written a book titled “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” In that work she argues that the national “War on Drugs” has resulted in many African American and Latino men being subject to discrimination of the type that is similar to the unequal treatment African Americans received when legal segregation was the law of the land in most of the states in the South.
While the war on drugs was first announced by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the author document how in the 1980s the Reagan Administration began to supply local and state law enforcement agencies with funding and equipment to target those who used illegal drugs. Laws were enacted at both the federal and state level that allowed law enforcement agencies to seize monies and property that were in the hands of drug dealers, and such seizures have become an important revenue stream for those agencies. And while the drug kingpins were the supposed targets of the war, it has been those charged with possession of small amounts of drugs, many of them people of color, who have ended up serving long sentences for their violation of drug laws.
Alexander cites studies that show that Americans of all races use illegal drugs in roughly equal measure but points out that blacks are charged with drug possession at a much greater rate than their white counterparts are. The author details that the U.S. now imprisons more people than any other nation, and that the majority of those incarcerated are blacks and Latinos who are serving sentences for drug possession.
Alexander sets forth how the U.S. Congress and many states passed laws as part of the War on Drugs that mandate lengthy prison sentences for those who plead guilty or are convicted of drug possession who have a previous conviction on their record. Even after their release those who have served time do not have their full legal rights restored to them, and many of them are denied their right to vote in many states. Those convicted of drug possession are denied access to food stamps and also to public housing as a result of bills signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Many employers refuse to hire those who have a felony record, which makes it difficult for those who have been released from prison to obtain employment.
The issues raised by Alexander have been a matter of concern to commentators and leaders throughout the nation. Voters in both Colorado and Washington recently have legalized the use of marijuana, and those who led that effort for those measures argued that marijuana possession convictions had unfairly stigmatized young black and Latino men in those states. The Oklahoma state Legislature has enacted a law that provides for assistance for those who are released from prison that includes job training, and employers in the state are being urged to hire former inmates by several civic groups in the state.
It may be time to call for a truce in the War on Drugs to allow treatment for those who were its casualties.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.