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Drugs and Civil Rights

John Dolva

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The 'war on drugs' and 'Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States' - a Civil Rights issue


The so-called "war on drugs" has really been a war on the people. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the population of U.S. prisons has nearly doubled over the last decade to 2 million, one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. One in four are in jail for drug-related offenses. While the number of violent offenders in jail has doubled in the last 20 years, the numbers locked up for drug offenses has gone up eleven times! There are nearly as many people locked up on drug charges today -- around 458,000 -- as the entire US prison population in 1980.

This incarceration boom has had undeniable racial dimensions. While there were twice as many whites in jail for drug offenses in 1996 as a decade earlier, there were five times more African Americans, and six times more African American youth. Last June, Human Rights Watch reported that the U.S. war on drugs has been waged overwhelmingly against African Americans.

These racial disparities are well known, yet year after year lawmakers uphold discriminatory laws that punish crack possession -- mainly found in impoverished inner cities - hundreds of times more severely than powdered cocaine - the drug of the white and affluent. This points to another ugly reality of the U.S.'s war on drugs - urban counterinsurgency. Waves of downsizing, restructuring and relocation have stripped many inner cities of the factory jobs which used to support more stable communities.

Like Latin American peasants, many urban dwellers have been left with drugs as the best option for survival. What better way for the establishment to contain this explosive population -- remember LA circa 1992? -- than by locking away hundreds of thousands via the war on drugs?



SUNS 4307 Thursday 22 October 1998 - United States: Voteless ex-convicts number millions

New York, Oct 22 (IPS//Lisa Vives)

Nearly 4 million Americans will be barred from voting in elections next month (November 1998) because of a maze of local laws penalising criminals convicted of felonies, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

The laws particularly penalise black men, the organisations says in its report released here Thursday. In seven states, according, "a staggering one in four black men is permanently disenfranchised. In two states, Alabama and Florida, the ratio is one in three."

Almost every state in the United States denies prisoners the right to vote, the report notes. But 14 states bar criminal offenders from voting even after they have finished their sentences.

"These people have paid their debt to society," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel at the New York-based Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. "No other country in the world takes away the right to vote for life." One federal judge cited in the report, Henry Wingate, lamented that disenfranchised criminals "must sit idly by while others elect his civil leaders and while others choose the fiscal and governmental policies which will govern him and his family."

The report 'Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States', is the first state-by-state analysis of the impact of U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws. Disenfranchisement, or loss of the right to vote, according to the authors, is a practice left over from medieval times when offenders were banished from the community and suffered "civil death." Brought from Europe to the colonies, the practice was revived at the end of the 19th century by disgruntled whites in a number of Southern states who used this measure along with other ostensibly race-neutral voting restrictions to exclude African Americans from voting.

Edited by John Dolva
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Our Education: Up in Smoke!

... the Higher Education Act's 1998 drug provision .. potentially denies federal student financial aid to students convicted of drug offenses...Known alternatively as the Souder Amendment, after Mark Souder, its white, Bible thumping primary sponsor, the legislation stripped federal aid from more than 40,000 students last year -- aid that's often the make-or-break for economically disadvantaged students seeking a college education. And indications are that it'll get worse. Previously, applicants for aid could leave questions about drug use blank. Now, under the Bush-Cheney regime, all blank answers are the equivalent of answering "Yes," and all applications with them aren't even processed.

Who wins? Certainly not students of color or of disadvantaged backgrounds (or both). As with most War on Drug legislation, the overwhelming number of the incarcerated are of ethnic backgrounds ...As is the case with most War on Drug Warriors, Souder's background is about as far removed from that of his legislation's primary victims. A former Young American for Freedom ...Keeping step with a time when American politics and big business are ever more intertwined and inseparable, the HEA provision applies only to drug offenses...They're statutes that flood existing prisons, result in fatty contracts with private prison contractors to build new ones, and waste the lives of those convicted of minor, non-violent drug offenses...

Racial bias is shockingly flagrant in federal War on Drugs legislation.

The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and its infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack -- both of the same base substance but in two different forms, one (powder cocaine) more prevalent in white-collar communities, the other (crack) in ethnic, economically disadvantaged ones....The institutional racism is blatant. More than 80% of those arrested for crack possession are black, whereas almost 60% of those arrested for powder cocaine are white and enjoy far more generous sentencing for powder cocaine...

Corruption is ubiquitous. One can trace the mass influx of crack... to...the Nicaraguan Contras who supplied...Colombian cocaine, proceeds of which helped fund the Contras. ...The moral hypocrisy is ironic and tragic; today, tens of thousands of predominantly ethnic prisoners rot away for possession of crack, tons of which foreign CIA assets helped introduce tons into urban cities during the 1980s.

and are thus denied the right to vote

"An offender who receives probation for a single sale of drugs can face a lifetime of disenfranchisement, says Human Rights Watch. "No other democratic country in the world denies as many people - in absolute or proportional terms - the right to vote because of felony convictions," the report argues. Restrictions on the franchise in the United States "seem to be singularly unreasonable as well as racially discriminatory, in violation of democratic principles and international human rights law," the report adds."

Edited by John Dolva
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