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UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See prorev.com for full contents of our site

March 2, 2010

BLACKS HAVE 7 TIMES GREATER CHANCE OF IMPRISONMENT THAN WHITES

MARC MAUER of the Prison Project reports that African-Americans "have a seven times greater chance of being incarcerated than do whites" even though blacks make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population

For example, of nearly 250,000 state inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2004, 113,000 (or 45%) were blacks compared to 66,000, (or 26%) whites and 52,000, (or 21%) Hispanics.

In the 1950s, the Boggs Act penalized first-time possession of marijuana or heroin with a sentence of two to five years in prison--a pretty stiff penalty. The perception at the time was that marijuana was largely smoked by African-Americans and Mexicans, and was used frequently by jazz musicians. However, when college campuses in the sixties were flooded with youthful pot smokers who were predominantly white, "public attitudes began to change quickly," Mauer wrote in The Long Term View, published by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.

"Marijuana came to be seen as a harmless drug, one that was not addictive and did not particularly lead to other criminal behavior," Mauer noted. Many states and localities revised their laws and some communities "all but decriminalized possession of small quantities," he said. Even so, where Milwaukee regarded possession as a misdemeanor many of its suburbs treated it as an ordinance violation, allowing suburban whites to get off with a fine. "As whites became a larger portion of the user population and replaced blacks in the public image of the pot user, public policies changed rapidly in a more understanding and less punitive direction," Mauer asserted. "It is far more likely that in the late twentieth century, in contrast to earlier time, patterns of discrimination reflect unconscious biases rather than blatant attempts to oppress African Americans," he wrote.

The "war on drugs," though, later dramatically increased the number of drug arrests and made sentencing provisions harsher in most states. Drug possession arrests rose by 88 percent in the 1980-90 period and typical state penalties for drug possession (excluding marijuana) are up to five years for a first offense and up to 10 years for a second offense, Mauer said.

Again, drunk drivers --- 78% of who in a 1990 study were white--- were "generally charged as misdemeanants and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service," Mauer said. By contrast, those convicted of drug possession---who are disproportionately low-income, Afro-American, and Hispanic, "are usually charged with felonies and frequently sentenced to incarceration."

Prosecutors also tend to reduce the charges against whites convicted of felonies more often than against blacks convicted of felonies. A comprehensive examination of 700,000 criminal cases by the San Jose Mercury News, Mauer noted, included that of 71,000 adults with no prior records. In this group, one-third of whites had their felony charges reduced to misdemeanors "while only one quarter of blacks and Hispanics received this disposition."

Sentencing practices in Western Europe are less harsh for some offenses than in the United States, Mauer pointed out. Many contend the reason for these practices is that Scandinavian societies are more homogeneous.


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