MILWAUKEE — Participants at an NAACP workshop yesterday accused the criminal justice system of being stacked unfairly against blacks in its sentencing practices, drug laws and juvenile incarceration rates.
“So often the ‘justice’ in criminal justice means ‘just us,’” said Devon Brown, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
He noted that startling numbers of black youths — 43 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes — are being raised from their teenage years to adulthood in the penal system.
He said that 57 percent of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States are black, that black women are the fastest-growing population in prisons and that the disparities are most prevalent not in the Deep South but in the Northeast.
Young members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, civil rights advocates and law-enforcement professionals discussed various topics during the two-day seminar, ranging from personal responsibility and the negative impact of rap music to the “wide-ranging inequities” of minimum sentencing laws between crack and powder cocaine, which members call a war not on drugs but on black youths.
“The number one health risk in many of our communities is homicide,” Mr. Brown said.
He also noted that more than 600,000 former convicts, many of whom were brought up in prisons, are returning to black communities every year.
“Is it [any] wonder that when they get out, all hell breaks loose?” he said.
“And the biggest problem is that in many states when you come back, you lose your voice because you can’t vote, and it is hard to engage a disenfranchised person in the area of civic responsibility,” Mr. Brown said.
He highlighted New Jersey’s “Be Smart, Choose Freedom” campaign, a first-of-its-kind prevention program consisting of a series of public service announcements and school visits funded by the state as a strong help in the battle to save black youths.
The seminar was a part of the NAACP’s Prison Project addressing felony disenfranchisement, reactivating prison branches and disparate treatment of offenses.
LaFonda Jones, director of the North Carolina Project for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 appears to target black youths.
From Oct. 1, 2000, to Sept. 30, 2001, 59 percent of the 12,457 federal drug arrests for cocaine possession, distribution or conspiracy were of black people, Miss Jones said.
She said the worst disparity is the fact that offenses involving 1 gram of crack cocaine, about the size of an M&M and more often used and sold by blacks, carry a minimum federal sentence 10 times that of criminal offenses involving 1 gram of powder cocaine, more often used and sold by whites.
“Black people represent about 35 percent of all crack cocaine users, but are 90 percent of all those incarcerated for crack cocaine convictions,” Miss Jones said.
She said parents who allow their children to be corrupted by the lyrics of rap artists and producers such as 50 Cent and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs are inviting their children to a future in prison.