Mattie White remembers July 23, 1999, as the day her life was turned upside down.
On that day in Tulia, Texas, White’s 26-year-old son and 25-year-old daughter were swept up in a drug bust that eventually resulted in the arrests of 16 percent of the town’s African-Americans–and a smattering of Euro-Americans who were, coincidentally, involved in mixed-race relationships.
On the word of one white undercover cop with a shoddy work history and a fondness for using the word “nigger,” the bust eventually resulted in forty-six indictments–and prison sentences that ranged from a few decades to 431 years. In Tulia, these alleged “drug dealers” were all arrested without drugs in their possession, but were indicted and paraded in front of TV cameras because undercover officer Tom Coleman swore that he had bought drugs from them. Coleman, for his part, had no other officers to corroborate his purchases, nor detailed documentation of any kind.
Mattie White’s children–and her white son-in-law–are now among the thirteen people who remain in prison from those arrests. The three young adults are serving ninety-nine-, sixty- and twenty-five-year prison sentences, far away from the rural town of 5,000 that they call home. In a July 29 column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert noted that “if these were major cocaine dealers, as alleged, they were among the oddest in the US. None of them had any money to speak of. And when they were arrested, they didn’t have any cocaine. No drugs, money or weapons were discovered during the surprise roundup.”
“Our goal is to have these sentences overturned,” says Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, whose agency represents Mattie White’s children in their postconviction appeals. “If this is not a civil rights issue, then there are no civil rights issues at this time…. The war on drugs has ended up being a war on people of color.”
Organized opposition to the drug war is no longer limited to the efforts of more radically minded drug reform activists from the political extremes.
The chorus, as it were, is now made up of an unlikely coalition of religious leaders, drug treatment experts, former addicts and prisoners, academics, students and pundits from both the right and left–all of whom decry the futility of mass incarceration as a tool for controlling the use and abuse of drugs. Drug-war dissent is also growing among elected officials like Representatives Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, Charles Rangel, John Conyers and Ciro Rodriguez.
And while Congressional dissent continues to be largely in the purview of progressive Democrats, Republican recognition of problems associated with the nation’s War on Drugs is growing steadily. In the past few weeks alone, elected officials in law-and-order states–Kentucky, Oklahoma and Virginia–have talked publicly of the need for early releases of nonviolent prisoners, many of whom are drug offenders, in order to alleviate budget deficits. Most other states are also facing severe fiscal strains because of the exorbitant cost of running packed prison systems and the attendant costs of healthcare, transportation, staff overtime and high staff turnover among correctional officers.
Roughly half a million people of all ethnicities are now doing time for drug-related offenses in state and federal prisons nationwide. Elderly medical marijuana patients, college-age recreational drug users and small-time suburban drug dealers have all been thrown into the mix. But the burden of incarceration has unquestionably been borne by the poor, and disproportionately so by poor people of color.
Contrary to popular misconception, drug use is roughly proportionate across all ethnic groups. Yet it’s a hard fact that more than three-fourths of the men and women doing time in state prison systems across the country are African-American or Latino. A May 2000 Human Rights Watch report, Punishment and Prejudice, found that the rate at which African-American men are sentenced to state prison for drug crimes is thirteen times greater than the rate at which Euro-American men are sentenced for similar offenses. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has further disclosed that one in three African-American men aged 20-29 are now under some kind of correctional supervision.
Harsh sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws may indeed have originally targeted drug kingpins and drug-crazed violent criminals. But the real-life result has been that the poorly educated, underemployed urban poor have become the unwitting victims of this drug war. This past October, for instance, the city of El Monte, California, agreed to pay $3 million to the family of resident Mario Paz. The payment comes three years after the 64-year-old grandfather was killed during a 1999 drug raid gone awry. Early one morning thirteen masked SWAT officers–most of whom did not speak Spanish–burst into his home and shot him. No drugs were ever found.
And while drug reform and civil rights activists struggle to change excessively punitive legislation and law enforcement policies, tens of thousands of Americans who live out their lives in this nation’s expanding socioeconomic underbelly are subject to racial profiling and street-level buy-and-bust operations.
In Seattle a group of defense attorneys have raised a unique legal challenge to these policies. The consolidated motion, expected to be heard in March 2003, involves thirteen unrelated low-income African-American and Latino co-defendants arrested after undercover agents solicited drugs on the street. Attorneys for the defendants are arguing that the Seattle Police Department practices “selective enforcement,” targeting ethnic minorities for buy-and-bust operations.
“In Seattle, 77 percent of those arrested for felony drug delivery in these buy-bust operations are African-American or Hispanic,” says lead attorney Kay-C Lee of the Racial Disparity Project of The Defender’s Association. “If you are a black male drug user in Seattle–and African-Americans represent only 7 percent of the city’s drug users–you’re twenty-two times more likely to be arrested than a white male drug user.”
Some men and women arrested on drug-related charges are indeed innocent. But many others actually do commit the nonviolent “crimes” for which they are arrested, and sensible jail sentences may give them exactly the time they need to reflect on their crimes.
But more frequently these largely nonviolent offenses speak to an overarching need for job and life-skills training, prevention- and intervention-focused counseling, and widely available substance abuse treatment. More than anything else, a commitment to public education would make all the difference in the lives of those born into economically disadvantaged and drug-addled circumstances.
Instead, between 1985 and 2000, spending on state corrections grew at six times the rate of funding for higher education, according to the Justice Policy Institute’s 2002 report, Cellblocks or Classrooms.
While doing their research, JPI’s Vincent Schiraldi and Jason Ziedenberg discovered that from 1980 to 2000, three times as many African-American men entered jail or prison as were admitted to colleges and universities nationwide. “When we close the doors to universities, we open the doors to prison,” says Schiraldi emphatically.
With findings like these, it’s time to face up to the fact that our mindless, fiscally irresponsible war on drugs hasn’t made our society safer, smarter or stronger. The struggle ahead, as former Baltimore mayor and outspoken drug war dissident Kurt Schmoke puts it, is one that must cut across racial, ethnic and political lines. The drug war is our problem, and it demands our attention every bit as much as those fought on foreign soil.