I have never spent a day in jail, even though I have committed felonies. During my college days at the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with the majority of Americans and nearly everyone I knew, I regularly smoked marijuana and took drugs. Yet very few of my fellow students were ever arrested. I thought this was because we were lucky.
But Ohio State University associate professor Michelle Alexander, in her brilliantly argued book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has a different explanation for my lack of jail time: I am white, and I live in an upper-income neighborhood. My other advantage: I am old. I committed my felonies before the war on drugs.
In the early 1980s, after President Ronald Reagan announced the war on drugs, many police departments naturally questioned why they should take valuable resources away from more serious crimes such as murder, rape, grand theft and violent assault. Reagan had an answer: We will give you extra money and equipment.
First, local police departments across the country were given excess military equipment, including 253 aircrafts, 7,856 M16 rifles and 181 grenade launchers, all to use for the war against drugs. But this was just the beginning. Next, they were given special federal grants for drug enforcement. Then, in 1984, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was amended to allow local police agencies to keep cash, cars and homes taken from people suspected of drug use and sales. And they did. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. drug task forces seized more than $1 billion in assets between 1988 and 1992.
Due primarily to increased drug arrests and longer prisoner sentences, America’s prison population has grown from 300,000 before the war on drugs to more than 2 million today. This incarceration rate is six to 10 times higher than any other industrial country. But if everyone who took drugs was arrested, almost half the population would be spending time in jail.
Even though the incidence of drug use and drug trafficking is nearly identical for whites and blacks, arrests are not. Citing Human Rights Watch’s “Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs” report, Alexander reported that black men have been sent to state prison on drug charges more than 13 times more frequently than white men.
And this problem is growing. The incarceration rate for black men in 2000 was 26 times what it was in 1983. At this rate, one in three young African-American men will serve time in prison for engaging in the same behavior that goes on in white neighborhoods and on white college campuses.
This is a national disgrace. We should not have one set of laws for whites and another for minorities, either in statute or in practice. I should have avoided prison because I was lucky, not because I was white.