A New Way to Get and Keep Black Men Out of Prison

A new aspect of the Department of Justice's War On Drugs aims to get and keep black men out of jail.
Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before a House Judiciary Committee in Washington

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in this file photo taken May 15, 2013. The Obama administration on Thursday threw its weight behind a proposal that it says could cut the average prison sentence for a federal drug defendant by 11 months, a change designed to help reduce the massive U.S. prison population. (Photo Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/Files)

In March, the Department of Justice announced another aspect of the Obama Administration’s “War on Drugs.” Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a plan to reduce prison sentences for low-level drug dealers, as part of the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative.

The announcement supports a January proposal from the United States Sentencing Commission to alter the federal guidelines to reduce the average sentence for drug dealers by about a year, from the current 62 months to 51 months.

If adopted, the change would impact nearly 70% of all drug trafficking offenders and reduce the average sentence by 11 months, or nearly 18%, Holder said in a statement to the Sentencing Commission earlier this month. The Bureau of Prisons said if the proposal was adopted the prison population would drop by 6,550 inmates at the end of five years.

“This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges – while measured in scope – would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” Holder said during his testimony. “And it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

The plan has bipartisan support from the two main political parties in Congress, which are equally interested in putting a dent in the United States record of being the world’s largest incarcerator of its citizens. America has held that honor since the 1970s and currently one in every 100 adults in the US are in prison. Currently, roughly one third of the Department of Justice’s budget is allocated to the prison system, a fact that has enabled Holder to gain supporters among fiscal conservatives and Libertarians. Consider that in 2010 alone, the federal government and states spent $80 billion on incarceration, and of the 216,000 current federal inmates nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. The effort is also in line with other relatively new policies since President Obama’s first term.

Back in 2010, Congress unanimously voted to reduce the 100 to 1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses compared to powdered cocaine. Before the Fair Sentencing Act passed, Blacks automatically received harsher sentences for the same crimes as a White offender given that crack was a drug more prevalent in black neighborhoods while powdered cocaine was more used in White ones. In response to the Fair Sentencing Act, last December President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses and imprisoned from 15 years to life. The relief also set free a man who was only 22 years old when he was sentenced to three life terms over a drug deal.

A year after the Fair Sentencing Act passed, the Obama administration also expanded the number of drug courts as part of the five-year plan. Back then, the nation’s 2,600 drug courts diverted about 120,000 people each year into treatment facilities instead of prison, a white paper from The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) observed. Given that many of the drug offenders would not be there if they were clean, the effort focused on getting people treatment to reduce the recidivism rate.

The Second Chance Act, which Congress passed with bipartisan support, supports state, local and tribal reentry courts, as well as family-centered programs, substance abuse treatment, employment, mentoring and other services that improve the transition from prison and jail to work to reduce recidivism.

Also, the ONDCPhas been working with HUD to encourage home leasing to ex-offenders who aren’t registered sex offenders or were in jail for manufacturing methamphetamine (otherwise known as “crystal meth”). Meanwhile, the Justice Department awarded $100 million to 178 state and local reentry grants and another $83 million to 118 new grantees this past September.

The cost of treatment drug abuse (including research, training and prevention efforts) was estimated to be $15.8 billion.  That’s a fraction of these overall costs of drug abuse which are estimated at about $193 billion a year through lost productivity, health care related costs, and incarceration. Researchers reveal that residential treatment is more cost effective if offenders attend post-release treatment.

The outcome of all of these efforts should mean a significant drop in the incarceration of African American men and women and with the state  of the black family always in a fragile balance and state, more unified families will be a good thing.

About the author, Jeneba Ghatt

Jeneba Ghatt is an attorney, columnist, speaker, blogger and political analyst. She owns a DC-area boutique tech and communications law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, where she has represented clients before the US Supreme Court, federal courts, the FCC, and the FTC. She has served as political analyst, columnist and Washington correspondent for various publications, including Politic365.com and the Washington Times Communities. Her work has appeared syndicated on The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Root and other sites. Visit her website, Jeneba Speaks and follow her on Twitter @jenebaspeaks.
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