Racial bias in arrests hurts all

June 19, 2000|By Tom Teepen

ATLANTA -- Americans have never stormed their prisons as the fed-up Parisians eventually stormed the Bastille, but you have to wonder if some day ...

This story, in one form or another, comes around pretty regularly. Newspapers and newscasts, some of them anyway, pay dutiful heed. Then someone from a conservative think tank -- sorry for the oxymoron -- allows as how the figures don't really mean what they seem to and wouldn't matter anyway even if they did, and that's good enough for the white folks, who move on to something else.

And here we are again, this time with what ought to be an urgent message from the Human Rights Watch. Analyzing U.S. Justice Department data, the group documents the gross disparity between the imprisonment of African-Americans and whites for drug offenses.

A wild guess might lead you to the suspect it's the black folks who are getting the raw deal.

Sure enough, blacks, 12 percent of the population, account for 62 percent of the drug offenders sent to prison. Black men are imprisoned for drug crimes at 13 times the rate of white men. In some states, the imbalance is even greater. In Virginia, for instance, it's 21 times the white rate; in Maryland, 28 times.

Yet the black and white rates of drug use are similar, with, overall, far more white than black drug users. A study by the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, found that five times as many whites as blacks use cocaine.

The invidious practice of racial profiling, the systemic racial bias of the criminal justice system, racial disproportions in poverty (and thus in access to a skilled legal defense) all pile up to create these grotesque disproportions.

Reports just this year -- and never mind similar ones last year -- from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency nail comparable imbalances on other quarters of our misfiring criminal justice system.

Bottom line: where one in 180 white men are in prison, one in 20 black men are.

This near decimation is creating a social undertow that tugs even at the edges of American life seemingly remote from it. It is undermining black family formation. It creates hopelessness and anger in about equal parts in low-income black areas. It contributes to disproportionate black unemployment and underemployment and thus diminishes the economic base essential for neighborhood well-being.

And all of these pathologies have implications, none of them good, for the general community.

You know, in the whole world we're second only to Russia, and a close second at that, in the percentage of our population in jails and prisons.

And now, surreally, we have private prison companies building prisons on what amounts to speculation, confident that lawmakers, courts and cops will find ways to fill them profitably. The job of providing the bodies that can turn those profits will fall mainly to the black community.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. He is based in Atlanta and can be reached via e-mail at teepencolumn@coxnews.com.

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