One out of three black men in their 20s are in jail, on probation or on parole - a figure that has jumped by more than one-third over the past five years, according to a new study made public on Wednesday.
The study by the Sentencing Project, a research group in the District of Columbia that advocates drug treatment and alternatives to prison, also concludes that blacks are convicted and jailed at far higher rates than their proportion of the population or even their proportion of those arrested.
The report comes just two days after the acquittal of O.J. Simpson raised concerns in some areas that he received lenient treatment because he faced a largely black jury. Although the report does not deal directly with the Simpson trial, it suggests that his experience was anything but typical for black defendants.
In 1989, just over 600,000 black men in the 20-to-29 age group were involved with the criminal justice system, according to the report. By 1994, that number had risen to 827,000.
On Wednesday, in calling for racial calm after Simpson’s acquittal, Jesse Jackson called on the nation to “declare a national emergency” to respond to the deteriorating conditions among largely poor African Americans described in the report.
Jackson said these grim figures help explain the vastly different views among whites and blacks of the Simpson trial’s outcome.
“Whites believe the justice system is half full, while blacks experience it as half empty, and sinking,” Jackson said. “If this were basically white youth in this dilemma or sentenced at this level, we would assume something is wrong with the system, not something wrong with the children.”
Other African American leaders said the report undercut any inference that Simpson’s treatment was analogous to that of the majority of black Americans in the criminal justice system. Especially when it comes to drug offenses, they said, most African Americans get tougher sentences than the average offender, they said, not more lenient ones.
The report argued that most of the increase in incarceration and parole rates is not because of a jump in crime, but because of the “war on drugs,” which began in the 1980s and which has disproportionately affected blacks.
It said said that African Americans constitute 13 percent of drug users but represent 35 percent of arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences.
“I don’t think that O.J. Simpson should become a symbol of ‘getting off,’ because basically O.J.’s world was not the black community’s at all,” said the Rev. Amos Brown Jr. of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.
Compounding the problem, Brown said, are controversial federal laws that require judges to sentence dealers of crack cocaine more harshly than those who sell the drug in its powdered form.
“A black who has five grams of crack cocaine is given five to 10 years automatically, but someone who has enough money and influence who has powdered cocaine is given a suspended sentence, or a slap on the hand,” Brown said. “You have whites in that situation, and they go free.”
The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently proposed changing federal sentencing guidelines so that defendants convicted of crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses would be treated equally, but both the full Senate and the House Judiciary Committee voted to reject the proposed changes.
The report estimated that the cost of supervising the 827,440 young African American males in jail, on probation or on parole is about $6 billion a year. It said the greatest increase in the rate of criminal justice supervision has been among African American women. It rose 78 percent from 1989 to 1994, also a result of the crackdown on drug use in recent years.
A Justice Department spokesman, John Russell, said the department “has no quarrel” with the report’s numbers. But he took issue with the suggestion that blacks are more likely to be prosecuted under federal drug laws than whites accused of the same offense.
The numbers, said Russell, probably “reflect the social and economic factors that have a disproportionate effect on the African American community.”
Marc Mauer, a co-author of the report, agreed that the reason blacks were disproportionately convicted and jailed is not necessarily racism but rather differences in economic backgrounds between many blacks and whites.
“Middle-class people with drug problems get into a treatment program,” said Mauer. “Low-income people have less access to treatment programs, so their drug problems are likely to lead to the criminal justice system.”
He said that sweeping changes in U.S. drug policies would be needed to reverse the skyrocketing incarceration rates he documented. Since the mid-1980s, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, twice as much has been spent on law enforcement as on drug treatment or prevention ratios that should be reversed, he said.
The report also recommends that the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and cocaine powder be eliminated, and that once in the criminal justice system, offenders have access to treatment programs.
“Black defendants come before largely black juries every day by the thousands throughout the nation, but they don’t have Johnnie Cochran for lawyers, they don’t have DNA experts, and they don’t bring any special resources with them,” said Mauer. “I don’t think they get any special attention from a black or a white jury.”
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