by John Sloan, III
Drowning in the deafening drone of a continuous Trump/Russia news cycle, America faces an ever-growing threat: the Indifference of Distraction. While media attention reflexively follows the bouncing, bright and shiny ball of the only seemingly newsworthy topic, our national discourse does circles around these headlines, numbing the common consciousness to the far reaching ripples of nuanced domestic policy.
Despite making up only 13.3% of the U.S. population, Black Americans comprise 50% of state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug related crimes, with 1 out of every 15 Black men over the age of eighteen laying their heads down on a prison cell bed and not in their own bedroom.
As a result, domestic policies like the recent pronouncement by Jeffery Beauregard Sessions, our nation’s embattled Attorney General, to roll back Obama/Holder-era drug policies go unchecked. In a sweeping memo, Sessions took aim at an already beleaguered demographic, ordering prosecutors to pursue the most aggressive sentences possible for federal defendants. While the AG himself characterized the move as “moral and just,” the ramifications of such a policy reversal will serve only to increase sentences on non-violent drug offenders, while simultaneously removing the autonomy with which former AG Eric Holder empowered local prosecutors.
At first glance such a position might seem defensible. No politician in history has ever lost an election because they were “tough on crime.” Upon closer examination, however, this throwback to 80s/90s-era War on Drugs policies is just another arrow in the conservative quiver of class warfare via racially divisive fear mongering.
To understand the negative effects of the Trump/Session memo, one must first examine the benefits and context of the Obama/Holder policies. In the thirty years between 1980 and 2010 state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold. And during an overlapping twenty year time period, the Corrections Corporation of America (the country’s second largest private prison company) saw revenue increase by over 500% with a reported $1.9 billion in revenue in 2015.
While mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines actively removed the compassion and responsibility of discretion from the individual prosecutor or judge, policy shifts by then Attorney General Eric Holder in both 2010 and 2013 sought to redesign an inequitable system. Burgeoned by systemic disadvantages in urban public education, social safety-net systems, healthcare, food/water nutrition disparity, and broken-windows policing, more than half of federally incarcerated prisoners are serving time for drug or non-violent offenses. And, despite making up only 13.3% of the U.S. population, Black Americans comprise 50% of state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug related crimes, with 1 out of every 15 Black men over the age of eighteen laying their heads down on a prison cell bed and not in their own bedroom.
With the modern political climate charitably characterized as divisive, sentencing reform is one of the few issues that has garnered support from all corners of the political spectrum. Whether Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, or Elizabeth Warren – Democrats and Republicans alike openly acknowledge the need for a sweeping overhaul. However, while legislation like The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 sought to accomplish this goal, the red tape of partisan bickering and political infighting killed the bill in committee.
While critics, like Sessions, believe reform policies to be lax and misguided, Holder led a “Smart on Crime” initiative, instructing prosecutors to “ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers.” And largely due to Obama/Holder policy shifts, rates of institutionalization among Black men began to drop in 2010.
However, despite this incremental progress, the recent about-face should not come as a surprise. It is indicative of our current socio-political climate, one that pits an ostracized urban ethnic demographic against an ignored and frightened rural working class. Since the moment Trump won the Republican Party nomination, our national discourse has been dominated by the same violent rhetoric that catapulted a reality TV star to the most powerful office in the world.
In barely coded language, politicians cry for the “reclamation of America,” rallying an already enraged white working class to arms with rhetoric steeped in the sinew of racism, fear mongering, and the malevolent and malignant false promise of a birthright to which they were not born.
This is why Jeff Sessions cannot be ignored.
His presence should pierce our consciousness as a haunting hearkening to a period when America’s greatness was reserved only for those with pale skin, a wealthy heritage, and both X and Y chromosomes.
Critics point to the disparity between federal and state prison populations to discredit the effects of Sessions’ recent attacks. But to think back only a few months, one can understand the full context of these initiatives. Back then, all those weeks ago, our newly minted president stood on a stage amidst the prescient cold of January and declared himself the salvation from “American carnage.”
This recent policy is merely a continuation of a siege, the call to which was sounded long ago. It is a call to the fearful, to those whose privilege diminishes due to the threat of equality. While politicians such as Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have referred to the recent opioid epidemic as a sickness and a disease, they continue to ignore the irrational disparity of mandatory sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. White Americans have long been the more likely drug abusers, the ones worthy of compassion, while the more melanated among us are pitted against each other for a place at the trough.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Perhaps we can only blame ourselves for allowing what is, most assuredly, a Constitutional crisis to distract our attention from the flank attack. After all, they told us this was coming. All they want is to make America “Great”...again.