Sunday, July 6, 2008

Amnesty as Reparations?

According to the research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project, one in eight African American males in their twenties is in jail or prison on any given day, and three-fourths of all those in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

To suggest that America's "war on drugs" is largely responsible for the apparent racial imbalance in our prisons is merely stating the obvious. This skewed effect on minority communities can be seen as coincidental only from an unenlightened perspective. But beyond the usual remedies, some even innovative - such as new policies in Iowa, Wisconsin and Connecticut requiring Racial Impact Statements of new sentencing laws - there lies an even more creative tool to make amends for the gross discrimination that has long existed in our judicial system.

A legitimate legal framework for outright amnesty should be one of the options available to the overwhelming majority of offenders whose crimes were non-violent and involved drugs. While some states are now looking inward to explain racial disparity in sentencing by recognizing social and economic injustice as the underlying cause of so much crime, it comes a little too late for so many of the presently incarcerated. Changes such as allowing the retroactive enforcement of new federal sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses are a step in the right direction. Laws such as these have the effect of illegitimizing previous laws under which many were sentenced thus facilitating genuine reform without giving rise to any potential for anarchy.

Finally, connecting the dots from economic and social injustice to despair and crime is essential if society is to recognize its own complicity in forging this link. For we are the offenders as well. Why? Because - through our complacency - we tolerate injustice.

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