“Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stanger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
“The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The Holy Bible, Matthew 25:37-40, NIV Version.
The New York Police Department uses an aggressive “stop and frisk” program to reduce crime in that city. This at first appears an intelligent policy and a laudable goal. But plaintiffs among New York’s minority population are challenging the program via a class action lawsuit.
Unfortunately, 90 percent of those stopped on the street, forced to place their hands against a wall or a police cruiser and spread their legs and be frisked in front of everyone in public in humiliating fashion are Latinos or Blacks. The program is not used in upscale or white neighborhoods at all. Worse yet 90 percent of stop and frisks do not result in an arrest.
Think about it–nine of ten people police simply see and use this procedure on are not seen to be committing any crime. Indeed, they are not in 90 percent of the cases guilty of anything more dangerous than walking down a public street in view of one or more police officers.
One plaintiff in the suit has been stopped and frisked twenty-eight times. If you are a white person who lives in an upscale white urban neighborhood or who lives in the suburbs how many times have police motioned you to come over and asked you to submit to a search of your person—especially when you have no criminal record at all? Think about that.
What if you had been stopped and frisked ten or twelve times in the last four or five years by your local police simply because you were on the street in an area where crime is higher or where poverty is higher. In many minority neighborhoods—crime is not entirely but largely a by-product of poverty.
Mayor Bloomberg in New York has praised the program. Other cities across the United States have adopted an aggressive stop and frisk program in minority neighborhoods. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the American Civil Liberties Union shows that a number of cities with large minority populations where stop and frisk is NOT used have crime rates as low or even lower than New York.
Old fashioned police work where officers have “probable cause” to believe a crime is in progress or about to be committed via protection in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution still works.
We must ask why stop and frisk is NOT utilized in white middle and upper class neighborhoods? Whites are often criminals too.
Patricia Williams, in an article in The Nation writes, “a consistent theme in all these disparate news stories [cited in the article] is the demise of the presumption of innocence. For those in already criminalized communities, this loss amounts to the abandonment of due process under the law.”
The nation’s long bitter fight against substance abuse, The War on Drugs, has for years featured heavy law enforcement action in minority communities and much less concentrated action in white communities. This is not to say that no white people or affluent Americans are arrested and convicted of using or selling illegal drugs and sent to prison—they are. But the main enforcement is centered in Black and Latino communities.
Michelle Alexander, in a book that Americans must read, The New Jim Crow, offers some statistics about those sent to prison in The Drug War that can only be accounted for simply due to the racial background of the individual or the racial group concerned.
The most shocking yet salient fact we must know before the following shameful crime statistics to be cited here is to know that whites offend or use illegal drugs at precisely the same rate as minorities according to a number of well-funded and long-time sociological studies. That’s right, the typical drug user is by raw number a white person who is middle class or affluent simply because they use illegal drugs and sell them at the same rates as people of color do but unlike them they are a majority of Americans and less often the object of the attention of law enforcement. It is that simple. That is hard to get your head around.
The common media image of an illegal drug user is an urban, inner city poverty-stricken high school dropout who is Latino or is Black and who is using guns to get what they want. Sometimes that is dead on. But it is a stereotype that prevents us from understanding just what our criminal injustice system does—how it operates.
The big drug sweeps, Alexander notes, are paid for with additional Federal money to police departments, to be used in poverty-ridden high crime areas. More affluent whites are not the objects of this intense portion of the nation’s drug war.
Now the grim statistics:
First, a black youth in the United States today is more likely to have done a year or more of hard time in prison and become a felon for life, than to have gone to college or technical school.
Since 62 percent of the U.S. population is white, they are in truth a mathematical majority of illegal drug users and sellers. But three fourths of all people imprisoned and made felons for illegal drug use are Blacks and Latinos. Two of three drug offenders of all racial backgrounds are merely in prison for drug use and not sale and have not done anything violent.
Yes whites sent to prison for drug offenses increased eight times between 1983 and 2000. On the other hand, shockingly, Blacks and Latinos who do not use drugs at rates any higher than whites saw their rate of imprisonment increase twenty-six times in that same period.
In short, Blacks and Latinos are being disproportionately put in prison for drug violations compared to whites. It is clear from reading The New Jim Crow and Alexander’s impeccable research and data that were the same drug sweeps and resources devoted to white communities the arrest numbers for white offenders would skyrocket beyond anything we have ever seen. But stop and frisk and drug sweeps where police squads abandon due process of law and any sort of probable cause are not seen there.
Again, a majority of Americans remain white. Politicians who provide the money for the drug war and the police who make the drug arrests refuse to make most of them in white communities. The only explanation is that a person’s socio-economic status, the place where they live, and their race is highly determinative in predicting whether or not they become convicted felons and do hard prison time.
Of course these people must pay the price for using illegal drugs and especially selling them. But if you merely have used a given drug and been busted for it by the police minus any violent act or threatening act against any other person how does locking so many people up in America to do hard time in prison help matters?
Two thirds of drug offenders have not harmed anyone but themselves. They are otherwise law abiding citizens. What they obviously need more than $25,000 plus per prison bed and more each year to incarcerate them is some form of community restitution for property related crime associated with drug use, and especially intensive drug treatment. Following that, they most need the real prospect of work with dignity and the ability to support themselves or their families.
We worry in this nation so much about keeping families strong and together. We should continue that. It is vastly important. But many women caught in the drug war for nonviolent drug use are in prison too long to hold on to their children or to be there for them. Often they are single mothers. Usually that means long-term or permanent placement in the foster care system.
The United States as a proportion of its population imprisons more people than any other nation on this earth. That is shameful and nothing less. The justice system ends up taking millions of people in the Black and Latino communities and converting them into convicted felons who return to poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the few jobs available are not going to a felon.
Michelle Alexander argues powerfully in The New Jim Crow that the effect is to criminalize whole populations of people of color and not proportionate numbers of white people who would be caught in the drug war’s net if stop and frisk, increased traffic stops with stop and frisk, and drug sweeps were common to more affluent white communities.
What we get is a nation where consciously or perhaps sometimes sub-consciously, the white majority that remains for the moment is able to use the mass incarceration of vulnerable populations in terms of their socio-economic and geographic status and use that as a means of control every bit as limiting to the aspirations of these people as the old Jim Crow system that was broken up in the Southern states of the Old Confederacy in the middle 1960’s.
On a practical level, all Americans will be quick to see that prisons cost us a lot of money. We lock up more people per thousand than anybody. It costs at least $25,000 to lock up somebody in prison for a year, just about the minimum hard time somebody is going to do.
A non-violent drug offender who has a family would be likely better served and better serve his community or her nation and that family by doing some sort of community act of restitution to show they understand and respect the rule of law. And to get the drug treatment and often treatment for mental illness or therapy to help put their lives in order.
The United States today has a distinctly racial criminal justice system that daily does grave injustice to a majority of those incarcerated. Violent and dangerous and repeat offenders must be isolated from the rest of us. But so many lives are being unnecessarily ruined among those who are not violent and otherwise law abiding outside of illegal use of a drug.
When you have paid your debt to society that society must welcome you back into its arms and there should be opportunities for you to employ yourself gainfully to support yourself, your family and to recover your self- worth and personal dignity. That is justice. But today we have an injustice system and not anything like social justice for human beings on a mass scale.