I'm reading Jim Webb's excellent new book A Time to Fight. One of the best chapters deals with the criminal justice system. He comes up with figures that even I found shocking (and I have published research on some of these issues). A sampling:
-- "... a black male without a high school diploma now has a 60 percent chance of going to jail during his young adulthood and ... a black male with a high school diploma has a 30 percent chance."
-- "... in 2005 112 million Americans above the age of twelve indicated that they have used illegal drugs at some point in their lives. This amounts to 46 percent of our entire adult population."
-- "When the 2006 high school seniors were asked which drugs they were able to 'obtain easily,' 85 percent indicated that they had no problems finding marijuana, 47 percent said the same about cocaine, 39 percent said crack, and 27.4 percent said they could easily obtain heroin."
-- "Although drug use among the races is statistically about the same, a 2006 ACLU report indicates that African Americans, with about 12 percent of our population, account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison."
My favorite section is the following passage:
Even as I write these words, it is virtually certain that somewhere on the streets of Washington, D.C. and eighteen-year-old white kid from the Maryland or northern Virginia suburbs is now buying a stash of drugs from an eighteen-year-old black kid. The white kid is going to take that stash back to the suburbs and make some quick money by selling it to other kids (of all different ethnic backgrounds) from his high school or college or inside his social circle. His chances of getting caught once he clears the black kid's neighborhood are pretty slim. The black kid, lured to the street corner by a similar motive of making some quick cash, is probably going to keep selling drugs until he either gets shot or is caught and arrested. Since his neighborhood is more than likely a high-traffic area for drugs, it is natural that local police and other drug enforcement officials will periodically target it. Thus, his chances of getting caught are pretty high. And once he's caught he will go to jail, to be replaced by another eighteen-year-old black kid. And then the cycle will repeat itself.He goes on to call for a shift of resources from imprisonment to crime prevention and drug treatment. While he does say that "the time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," he stops short of calling for drug legalization. Obama has spoken eloquently on these issues, and one can hope that an Obama-Webb administration would make a serious move for reform of the criminal justice system.
The probability is also high that the white kid will soon stop his risky little side business. It is even higher that the other suburban kids who are buying drugs from the white kid will remain legally unaffected by their behavior and will go on to college. After college, many will end up as high-degreed professionals, some of them as lawyers. As they grow older, they will look back on their drug use as recreational and joke about it, laughing it off as a mere phases, just one more little rebellion on the way to a responsible adulthood.
On the other hand, as soon as he is arrested the black kid will enter a hell from which he may never recover. This hell is so familiar to many black communities that it has evolved into an ugly but predictable way of life. It is a hell that will affect his family, his community, his future employability, his rights of citizenship, and even the way he interrelates with individual members of the rest of our society. The American criminal justice system not only stigmatizes those who become enmeshed in it; it also ensures that most of them will never be free from that stigma from the moment they first walk into the inside of a prison cell.
In addition, prison life will change the black kid, harden him, mess up his mind, and redefine his self-image. And after he is released from prison, the black kid will be dragging an invisible ball and chain behind him for the rest of his life. The normal flow of his educational and social life has been interrupted. Prison has become his entryway into adulthood. Few employers of consequence will want to hire a convicted felon. Very few reentry programs are available to help him move into a responsible future. The odds are two-thirds that he will be rearrested within three years, and they are better than fifty-fifty that he will be back in jail during that same period.
By the time the white kid reaches fifty years of age, he may well be a judge. By the time the black kid reaches fifty, he will likely be permanently unemployable, will be ineligible for many government assistance programs, and will not even be able to vote.
If the laws against drug use were uniformly enforced, just for starters half of Hollywood would be in jail instead of half of Harlem. And for all the money and effort we have spent on the war against drugs, we have not been able to crack the problem at is sources--where it is grown and manufactured--or, most tellingly, at its destination--America's seemingly insatiable demand for the product.