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Longer Sentences, Drug Enforcement, and Voter Suppression

May 13, 2017

Letter to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, March 19, 1986

Jeff Sessions says he’s not a racist. So who are you going to believe–him or Coretta Scott King? Let us place in evidence the order to US attorneys issued by Trump’s Attorney General yesterday to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against crime suspects, reversing Obama administration efforts to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug violations.

Why is that racist, you might ask? Don’t white people get arrested for drug offenses too? Indeed they do, though much less frequently, and they are even less often sent to prison for them. Let’s connect the dots and explain why Sessions’ hard line is not only bad policy in general, but disproportionately impacts minority communities and is actually an effective method of voter suppression.

The US imprisons people at rates shockingly higher than any other developed country in the world. The latest data shows that the US incarceration rate is 693 prisoners per 100,000 people. By way of comparison, the rate for Canada–a country with a similarly diverse population and higher percentage of immigrants–is only 114. Somehow our neighbors to the north keep less than 1/6 as many of their people in jail and still achieve a lower crime rate than we have. For a fascinating interactive comparison of incarceration rates by country and state, click here.

There are also great disparities among states in incarceration rates. Louisiana is the champion at 1,143/100K, followed closely by Georgia, Oklahoma, and Alabama (Sessions’ home state). In other words, in those states one person out of every 100 is in prison at any given time. Florida ranks number 8, just behind Texas. But even Massachusetts, which has the lowest rate at 330/100K, jails more people than any other developed country except Russia–that paragon of justice.

According to official figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2015 (the latest released statistics) some 2,173,800 adults were in federal, state, or local jails or prisons in the US. This is a slight decline from the peak in 2007-08, which resulted partly from a shift in policy under the Obama administration. Perhaps an even more astounding figure is that 6,741,400 people–1 in 37 adults in the US–were under some form of “correctional supervision”, i.e., in jail, prison, on parole, or on probation. If that population were a state, it would be the 15th largest in the country–just after Massachusetts and just ahead of Arizona.


The huge increase in incarceration started slowly in the 1970s and then exploded in the 80s and 90s as the War on Drugs became a priority in the Reagan and subsequent administrations. With the flood of drug arrests and convictions, more prisons sprang up around the country to house the convicts, creating virtually a new prison industry including private for-profit prisons.

According a 2008 report in the New York Times, drug arrests shot up from around 581,000 in 1980 to l.9 million in 2006. More than 80 percent of arrests were for possession, rather than sale or manufacture. And four out of 10 arrests were for mere marijuana possession, according to FBI data.

But the War on Drugs impacted quite differently depending on whether you happened to be black or white.  According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report cited by the NYT, blacks were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of whites even though studies had shown no significant difference in propensity to use drugs between blacks and whites in the US. For black men, arrest rates were up to 12 times that for white men in some places.

The disparity of incarceration rates between blacks and whites in general is astoundingly high, and perhaps surprisingly the greatest disparities occur in states not stereotypically associated with overt racism. A 2016 analysis of official data published by the Sentencing Project found that nationwide African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times that of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. The study found that in eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult black males is in prison, and in Oklahoma, the state with the highest overall black incarceration rate, 1 in 15 black males ages 18 and older is in prison.

The mass incarceration of black men has had a devastating effect in communities across the US in all sorts of ways. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant 2015 exploration of this scourge published in The Atlantic.) But one of the malign effects of the War on Drugs was the elimination of voting rights for people convicted of drug charges.  Again, because of the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks, this has in turn had a much greater effect on voting by black people than on whites.

All states except Maine and Vermont have some form of “felon disenfranchisement”, but 12 states permanently strip voting rights from those convicted of felonies.  According to a 2014 Sentencing Project report, “Nationwide, one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction, and in three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia—more than one in five black adults is disenfranchised.”

The use of such laws to keep black people from voting originated in the 19th century in the South following reconstruction. It was deliberate then, and it sure looks deliberate now. According to an op-ed piece published by the New York Times, some 6 million people (of all races) currently can’t vote because of these laws. In Jeff Sessions’ Alabama, an estimated 7.2 percent of all adults and 15 percent of black adults have lost their right to vote for this reason.

For a while there in the Obama years, it seemed as if the tide had begun to turn, with a growing recognition–even among some Republicans–that mass incarceration didn’t keep us safer and that the War on Drugs had been a colossal failure and social disaster. Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana. The federal prison population had started to decline, and use of private prisons was starting to be curtailed.

Then came Trump and Sessions, telling lies about crime and “voter fraud.” Sessions wants to go back to aggressive enforcement of drug laws, presumably including places where marijuana is perfectly legal.

White racists have learned that there are other ways to keep minorities “in their place”, and there are many ways the Republicans have found to suppress voting among blacks and other people who oppose them. They’re not going to give up this one easily. Wouldn’t it be sweet irony if both Trump and Sessions wound up in prison themselves?

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