Black groups form coalition on drug issues

Schmoke is co-chairman, Baltimore an initial target

October 21, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

For years, many of the nation's leading black legislators, attorneys and social scientists complained that national drug policies were ineffective, blaming them for the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison.

But for years, little changed.

Yesterday, however, a dozen African-American professional groups announced that, rather than toiling away piecemeal, they are banding together.

Creating the National African American Drug Policy Coalition, they hope to spark reform with a two-pronged approach: In a handful of cities, including Baltimore, they plan to advise judges to offer treatment rather than prison sentences for drug crimes and to push education and prevention in communities.

Nationally, they hope to launch a debate that will propel lawmakers to change mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that the coalition complains unfairly hurt blacks and other minorities.

Among the group's leaders is Kurt L. Schmoke, a former three-term Baltimore mayor who, in 1988, called drug addiction a public health problem and advocated decriminalizing drugs. His stance sparked a national debate on drug policy.

Schmoke, once a prosecutor and now the dean of Howard University Law School, will be co-chairman of the coalition.

Acknowledging that his stance on drug decriminalization has not drawn widespread support, Schmoke distanced it from the coalition's effort.

"I have tried my best to ensure that people didn't see this as a Kurt Schmoke operation, because it is not," he said yesterday. "I do strongly believe that this war on drugs should be more of a public health war. I am very pleased that this organization has come about. But it's not something I created, and it's not about decriminalizing drugs."

Schmoke said instead he wants to help fix what he calls "one of the most important issues affecting the quality of life in urban America."

He was elected to his first term as mayor in 1987, and shortly afterward he said the nation's drug policy was as big a failure as Prohibition. He advocated medical treatment for addicts instead of jail time.

Treatment, advocates hoped, would reverse a disturbing trend reported in 2002 by the Justice Policy Institute: In 1980 African-American men in colleges and universities outnumbered those in prison by more than 3-to-1. But two decades later, 791,600 black men were incarcerated for drug-related crimes, compared with 603,032 enrolled in college.

The notion that the nation's drug policies are ineffective is not new. But what sets the coalition's effort apart is its collaborative nature.

"We have had a fragmented approach for some time, but we have never had all these groups working together," said Arthur L. Burnett, a retired Washington, D.C., superior court judge, who is the full-time executive director of the coalition.

And its goals are ambitious. Supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the group plans to see results within the next five years.

The national component will be launched in February, with a conference bringing together partners to strategize a national debate. The Coalition includes such groups as the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, National Bar Association and National Association of Black Psychologists.

On the local level, the group is targeting seven pilot cities: Baltimore; Washington; Chicago; Seattle; Huntsville, Ala.; Flint, Mich.; and another city to be named in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Smaller advisory groups will work to influence local judges and to lobby legislators.

"The drug courts are fine, but they are only dealing with an infinitesimal amount of people," said Burnett, a judge of 31 years, who helped advocate for drug courts years ago. "They don't have all the resources to deal with all the people who really need help. One of our big missions is to educate legislative bodies for more intensive and more elaborate treatment. To do that, they need more money."

Beyond reforming decades-old drug laws, Burnett wants to see black professionals play a larger role mentoring children in communities and keeping them out of the streets - and away from drugs.

"Sure, there are mentoring programs out there, but they have been episodic, small and fragmented," he said. "These organizations need to come together and make educating young people the basis for their existence. We need to be concerned with doubling the numbers of black lawyers and doctors."

Drug policy affects more than dealers and addicts, he said:

"We're not dealing with drug policy only as it impacts the criminal justice system, but it is a part of the whole problem of the dysfunctional black family, the lack of jobs and unemployment. Drugs is the thread that runs through all this."

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