Courier Journal Op-Ed: Fighting racial bias in the federal judicial process
Here are two statistics that disturb me, and should startle everyone:
• African Americans in Kentucky are six times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
• While African Americans are 13 percent of the total U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the prison population.
What is the reason for these disparities?
In both cases, using a federal government, one-size-fits-all approach to address these issues is a primary culprit. The problem is Washington's habit of undermining the system our Founding Fathers created, which left as much power as possible in the hands of local and state officials, and sought to treat people as individuals, not as groups or classes of people.
In the case of arrests, federal agencies have hamstrung local law enforcement agencies by requiring them to meet numerical arrest goals in order to secure funding. Morally, this is troubling. In practical terms, instead of local enforcement agencies spending their time investigating serious felony crimes, they concentrate on minority and depressed neighborhoods to increase their drug arrest statistics.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which reported on the arrest statistics, highlighted the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. This federal program distributes millions of dollars a year to local law enforcement agencies. Arrest numbers are a performance measure used in doling out the money.
We are literally sending our money to Washington where an overgrown bureaucracy is encouraging racial profiling before the money is allowed to be sent back to us. We should keep more of our money and decision-making power closer to home - and put an end to practices that encourage discrimination.
Federal sentencing laws have a disproportionate effect on the African-American community, too. Black men are more than twice as likely as whites to face mandatory minimum sentences. One in three black men may spend time incarcerated. It's not just crime patterns that are to blame. There are significant disparities in sentencing outcomes for blacks and whites arrested for the same type of crimes.
Here's the kicker: Mandatory minimums don't actually do anything to keep us safer. In fact, judges will tell you that mandatory minimums do much harm to taxpayers and to individuals, who may have their lives ruined for a simple mistake or minor lapse of judgment. Oftentimes when this happens, families lose sources of income and support, communities are torn apart, and less money is available for community police and other effective crime-fighting tools.
When a crime is committed, it should fall to the local prosecutor, judge and jury to determine the guilt or innocence, as well as determine the just punishment for the crime. In the current system of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing, the authority is taken away from the jury and judge, and given by the legislature to the executive. Prosecutors already have tremendous power because they collect the evidence and choose which crimes to charge. If a mandatory penalty is attached to that crime, the prosecutor then exerts much influence over the entire procedure, including the sentence.
If alleged drug users George W. Bush and Barack Obama were subject to today's mandatory minimum statutes in their youth, they could've been imprisoned for sentences for well over a decade. Once released, they would've had trouble finding a job, much less becoming president.
It makes no sense to put our young people in prison for extended sentences over one mistake.
Recently, I joined my colleague Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, in introducing a bill that would authorize judges to disregard federal mandatory-minimum sentencing on a case-by-case basis. Some might think it is unusual for a conservative Republican to join a liberal Democrat on such a bill, but contrary to popular belief, the protection of civil liberties and adherence to the Constitution should be a bipartisan effort.
Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, has introduced companion legislation in the House. I have met with Reps. Scott and John Conyers, D-Mich., both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to discuss this issue.
I join the African-American community in its outrage at Washington's discriminatory policies and practices and I am eager to work with its representatives in Congress to bring about meaningful reform. Let's have a real dialogue about these issues and make the changes necessary to ensure that the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments are secure for all Americans.
Read more from the Courier-Journal HERE.