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October 2011 Issue

Criminalization of Communities of Color

By Brenda L. Webber

Racial disparities in the nation's legal system continue to challenge fairness and equal justice. Commentary on a resolution submitted for the 2012 General Conference by the Women's Division.

The arrest and sentencing of a white Ivy League college student on cocaine charges last summer drew hundreds of comments to the Web page of one newspaper. The student pled guilty to a lesser charge and filed to retain the right to vote. Readers took sides in the debate over drug sentencing and issues of race, with some asking if the defendant had been a person of color how would the police, prosecutors and the judge have treated him?

Racial disparities in the nation’s legal system continue to challenge our views of fairness and equal justice. Proverbs 12:15 says, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” But how often is justice done, especially in communities of color?

According to the Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice research and advocacy organization, “One in three young black men is under control of the criminal justice system, five million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions, and thousands of women and children have lost welfare, education and housing benefits as the result of convictions for minimum drug offenses.”

Add to drug incarcerations the growing number of immigrant detentions and arrests in communities of color, particularly black and Latino, and the figures are startling. In a report on “Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity,” the Sentencing Project found that Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double (1.8) the rate of whites. That report was released in 2007, pre-dating the current surge in anti-immigrant legislation enacted or now pending in an estimated 20 states that direct law enforcement to stop and intercept immigrants suspected of being undocumented.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, believes there are better and more productive alternatives to detention. The project has worked with individuals and organizations including United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Church in its efforts to change the way Americans think about crime and punishment.

Mr. Mauer believes the phrase “criminalization of communities of color” — the name of Women’s Division’s proposed General Conference resolution goes straight to the heart of the issue.

“I’ve seen an enormous explosion of the prison system,” he said, citing the proliferation of private prisons contracted by states to house inmates. “The United States leads the world in expansion of prisons. It has grown beyond what is cost-effective in terms of public safety.”
And who occupies all those prisons? Again, the Sentencing Project reports more than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their 20s, 1-in-8 is in prison or jail on any given day. This continual uptick in incarceration of persons of color is credited largely to proclaimed “get tough on crime” — particularly regarding the “war on drugs” — policies and the kinds of people they snare. “Three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color,” the Sentencing Project reported.

Much attention has been given to disparities in sentencing for powder cocaine versus crack cocaine, the first profiled as a drug of choice largely for whites and the second as a commodity bought and sold mostly in communities of color. Since 1986 the punishment for cocaine was a mandatory five years imprisonment for 500 grams of the powder and for 5 grams of crack — a 100:1 ratio penalty. Congress changed the law in 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act, and subsequently the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to apply the new guidelines and make the change retroactive for crack cocaine offenders, meaning an estimated 12,000 people may be eligible for a three-year sentence reduction. While the change falls short of public calls to end mandatory sentencing — laws that strip judges of the ability to use their discretion — it is evidence of what effective advocacy and public protest can do.

The Sentencing Project has a 25-year history of advocating for changes in sentencing and policy options. Mr. Mauer advises tackling the issue on a national and a state-by-state level. This July the Sentencing Project released a letter in support of the Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2011, which provides financial support for re-entry services, including substance abuse treatment, employment training and mentoring for persons coming out of prison. He advocates “re-investment” of government monies from building more prisons to funding prevention and expanding treatment as alternative approaches to imprisonment and a way to reduce corrections costs.

Seven hundred thousand people are released from prison yearly. Where do they go? Back to their communities? To jobs? To families? To jail, again? There are few resources to help them integrate back into free society and avoid re-incarceration. The Second Chance Act helps fund re-entry programs. The money goes to a variety of state and local programs via state agencies. Churches and groups like United Methodist Women could advocate for more federal funds under the Second Chance Act.

Mission institutions help

Wesley Community Centers in Dayton, Ohio, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, provides space for the Adam Project, Inc., an alternative sentencing and re-entry program, says the Rev. Jerome McCorry. “Wesley Center is vital not just to the Adams Project but to the general community,” he said. “It provides space for our meetings and mentoring program. It’s in the core of the community, where the people are who need our services.”

Mr. McCorry, who heads Adam Project, describes it “as a way of keeping folks kind of on hold rather than sentencing.” It is designed to reduce the rate of criminal recidivism and relapse. He says local judges have turned to Adam Project as an alternative sentencing tool. In addition to the courts, participants are referred by probation officers, or they simply walk in, looking for a way to change their lives. They receive job assistance and the support of professional case workers. The program has a peace initiative and has sponsored block parties in some areas where drugs were once sold.

While Adam Project started as a program for men only, 20 percent of the more than 600 persons it’s served in the past three years have been women. Its name comes from Genesis where God asks Adam, “Where are you?”

“Where’s Adam at a time like this?” Mr. McCorry said.

The Adam Project is supported by church groups and hopes to receive government funding eventually. “We want to prove ourselves good stewards before the funding and show that we can be good stewards after the funding,” said Mr. McCorry, who serves as an unpaid staff director. “We seek to prove there are people who have been through some tough stuff and can make it, can make that spiritual transition.”

United Methodist Community House in Grand Rapids, Mich., assists First Step House, a program for women in recovery from substance abuse, says Rose Simmons, the director of program. While it is a transitional program, it receives referrals from the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry program and follows that states program’s rules. Some women come to First Step as an alternative to prostitution, seeking a way out of the street lifestyle. The women have up to two years in the residential program to turn their lives around. They seek employment or schooling. Some women volunteer at the program center or at Community House, hoping to learn new skills.

“Many of them are not able to go back to their families,” Ms. Simmons observed. “It’s a safe place…to help them maintain sobriety. They like the home setting. They have their independence.”

The women are required to work and pay 30 percent of whatever income they have since some women may not have a 40-hour week job. The program is in continual need of funds and community support.

Advocacy needed

United Methodist Women support such programs through Mission Giving and also through advocacy on the local, state and federal levels. Mr. Mauer suggests advocates push for states and the federal government to enact policies requiring “racial impact statements” — much like environmental impact statements — before they enact new legislation.

“Try to discern the effect of a policy before adopting it, rather than waiting 25 years, as with the crack laws, to discover its effect on specific communities,” he said. Iowa and Connecticut adopted racial impact statements in 2008.

Twenty-three states have enacted reform opening access to voting. Thousands of individuals are unable to vote because of state and federal laws that take away their voting rights and even benefits for food stamps because of a felony conviction.

“Many people feel they can never vote again,” Mr. Mauer said. Laws should not take away the fundamental right of citizenship. He advises advocating for reform.

Brenda L. Webber is a freelance journalist living in Savannah, Ga.

Last Updated: 03/20/2014
 
 

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