Liberty and injustice for all

By - Feb 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Cole J. White

If there is ever to be equality in this country, surely it must begin in our courts of law. If we are to believe all men are created equal, then shouldn’t they be judged equally as well?

–Thurgood Marshall

It has been 43 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment, and still we have crushing poverty, humiliating discrimination, demoralizing racism and a legal system that sees color as an indictable offense.

Every night on the news, we hear about another “brown” person committing another crime, another arrest, another conviction, another… another… another. Why?

Because the civil rights movement of the 1960s didn’t create a utopian melting pot, where justice is even-handed and equality is equal. Because, in America, if you’re black you have a greater than 1 in 4 chance of going to prison; you have a higher likelihood of being the victim of violence (sometimes, believe it or not, at the hands of the police) and nearly a 40 percent probability that you will live your entire life in poverty.

The sheer lack of options makes an “average American life” little more than a fairytale for many “urban” kids. For them, slangin’ and gangin’ have become a means of survival, of pride, of identity. This puts many of these at-risk children on a disastrous collision course with a criminal justice system that has been co-opted by legislative hypocrisy and duplicative agenda-setting.

Retired judge Phillip Seymour said, “Playing politics with the law is a dangerous, dangerous thing to do. And every time I hear a politician talk about getting tough on crime, I know someone’s getting screwed.” The class-A rodgering begins with the draconian Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (MMS) guidelines.

Trickle-down sentencing

Ostensibly, mandatory minimum sentences were designed to target “kingpins” and high-level dealers – a trickle-down drug policy. But these laws almost never nab kingpins. More times than not, addicts and – worse still – innocent people are the ones who wind up in prison.
And those people are mostly black. Why? Because mandatory minimums disproportionately target minorities, a claim substantiated by the FBI, which reports that 60 percent of those prosecuted (and convicted) for drug crimes are black; while most drug users – some 74 percent – are white. Intentional or not, these laws are racist.

The racial divide is highlighted by the crack and powder cocaine guidelines. A majority of crack users are black. A majority of powder cocaine users are white. Five grams of crack will get you five years. It takes 100 times as much – 500 grams of powder cocaine – for a five-year sentence, effectively creating a generation of young black men who will spend the rest of their lives on the wrong side of the law.

Despite the obvious problems with sentencing laws and the objections of the legal and civil rights communities, some members of Congress, like Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, have fought to make mandatory minimums even more stringent – all to appear “tough on crime.”
At best, many congressional Republicans and some Democrats believe that mandatory minimums provide the most effective solution for law enforcement in cities gripped by gang violence and plagued by escalating drug crimes.

But it’s all politics and perception. Many police officials and prosecutors believe that these laws are a deterrent to drug use and help reduce crime, even when, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, drug use has climbed over 20 percent since the mid-90s. And the vague but mythic fear of black men – strung out, raping, murdering and robbing innocent suburbanites – has been successfully propagated to the extent that even well-intentioned politicians who may otherwise oppose MMS guidelines have had to bow to their constituencies in some cases.

Lives in the balance

And even if one dismisses the inequity of those convicted because they actually did possess, use or sell drugs, you cannot write-off the innocent lives destroyed by these laws. Lives of people like Alfreda Robinson*.

Robinson was a schoolteacher in Baltimore for over 15 years. As a single mother, she tried to set a good example for her son, James, and worked hard to better their lives. Despite her best efforts, James had fallen into a life of drugs and gangs.

On November 16, 1999, James called his mother from jail begging her for bail. He had problems, but she couldn’t let her “little boy” rot in a cell. She didn’t have enough money to make bail, so she called her neighbor and asked to borrow some cash. That call would change her life forever.

The next morning, police smashed through the front door of her apartment, guns drawn. The call, they said, proved she was involved in James’ activities. They found 10 grams of crack and a handgun hidden in the floor of James’ room, but still didn’t have much of a case against Alfreda.

They needed a witness

Deshaun Allen, a dealer with a history of altercations with Alfreda, and who had been in jail on drug and assault charges, agreed to testify against Alfreda and James in exchange for immunity from all pending charges. The jury heard “schoolteacher,” “drugs” and “guns.” They convicted.

Alfreda Robinson, with no prior record, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for the crime of being a mother. James got life… literally. He was killed his first week in prison.

Deshaun Allen, a three-time felon and suspect in multiple murders, walked free. A year after the trial, Deshaun killed three Baltimore police detectives during a sting. He remains at-large.
But perhaps a ray of hope shines in an otherwise dark part of the American justice system. The new Congress is considering hearings on mandatory minimums, a decision lauded by judges across the spectrum. Opponents of MMS laws are hopeful that a major overhaul will be forthcoming.

For those who will fall victim to these laws, let’s hope they’re right. VS

*Names in the “Robinson” story have been changed, as the case is currently under appeal.

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