Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton was a guest host on MSNBC the other night, and he and guest James Peterson of Lehigh University made the case that the "War on Drugs" has largely been a war on poor African-Americans.
In a segment called "Crack Justice," Sharpton and Peterson discussed a proposal backed by Attorney General Eric Holder that would retroactively correct sentencing disparities for prisoners who received longer sentences for crack cocaine crimes than they would have for powder cocaine crimes.
The plan, which would affect 5,500 inmates, goes into effect Oct. 1, according to the Los Angeles Times.
(Given that they're essentially the same drug, it never made much sense for crack cocaine offenses to be punished more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, in my view.)
On MSNBC, Sharpton displayed a chart showing that 85 percent of people eligible for early release under the proposal are African-American.
"While congress changed the sentencing law last year, it did not address the situation of thousands of prisoners still serving lengthy and often unjust sentences under the old system," Sharpton said. "... I think it's long overdue."
Sharpton said such disparities undermine "the legitimacy of our criminal justice system."
James Peterson, a professor of Africana studies and a guest on the show, then made the following point:
"We have a disproprtionate amount of nonviolent substance abusers in prison," he said. "We cannot continue to put nonviolemt substance abusers in jail and continue to privatize prisons and think that that's actually a 'War on Drugs.' That's actually a war on poor folk who have substance abuse problems."
Peterson finished with two points: "Aggressive incarceration does not reduce crime" and "What's going to have to be on the table eventually is some form of decriminalization."
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