March 4, 2004
ALITTLE news for the many Jamal Lewis fans -- of whom I am one -- who think the Baltimore Ravens' great running back is a victim of an overzealous federal prosecutor reaching too far to make a case out of the word "Yeah," uttered during a cellular telephone call four years ago: We're still at war.
In case you missed it, the U.S. government has been engaged in a war on drugs since Jamal Lewis was a toddler.
Ronald Reagan declared the war in 1982, and Poppy Bush escalated it in 1989. Congress has increased the legal weaponry of federal agencies and prosecutors, and forced mandatory minimum sentencing on judges. We've put oodles of drug offenders, mostly young African-American men like Jamal Lewis, in new prisons from sea to shining sea.
In case you didn't notice: The number of people locked up in American jails and prisons passed the 2 million mark last year. As a nation, we have the highest percentage of citizens behind bars in the world. Maryland alone has more prisoners than all of Canada, and this state leads the nation in the percentage of African-American prisoners, according to Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, one of many think tanks that closely examine statistics kept by the Department of Justice.
It took about 150 years for the American prison population to reach 500,000 inmates, and that occurred in 1980. Since then, the American penal nation has grown by 1.6 million.
Nothing accounts for that surge more than the war on drugs -- more aggressive, task force-style drug busts, increased efforts by federal agencies to augment local enforcement, more arrests, longer sentences, reduced opportunities for parole.
The Sentencing Project in Washington reports that in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term as president, there were 40,000 Americans in prison solely for drug offenses. By last year, that number had grown to 450,000, and 75 percent of them were black or Hispanic.
Drug use might not be any higher among those groups than among whites, but it's the minorities, primarily in poorer urban neighborhoods, who are routinely attacked in the war on drugs.
Jamal Lewis just happens to be a millionaire celebrity athlete -- though he hadn't yet reached that envied plateau when his alleged drug offenses occurred.
Around drug-beleaguered Baltimore, he seems to be getting considerable sympathy. And everyone I talk to seems skeptical at best about the charges, as described in the press to date.
I like skeptics. But it seems that only when the war on drugs nails someone who's popular and celebrated -- or necessary for, say, a team's Super Bowl run -- do the skeptics come out to question it.
Wake up and smell the herb, baby.
Jamal Lewis' case is typical of the kinds of cases federal prosecutors have brought for years. Long investigations aren't unusual. Sting operations, based on the premise that only men predisposed to deal drugs will be caught in a government-set trap, aren't unusual.
The charges Lewis faces -- conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 5 kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in the commission of a drug crime -- aren't unusual, either.
This kind of law enforcement work has been going on for a couple of decades, and continues today.
In a recent Florida sting, the feds grabbed 14 workers at Miami International Airport on charges of smuggling cocaine and heroin from Latin America. The investigation spanned four years and reached into at least three foreign countries and three U.S. cities.
Within the past few months, feds and locals wrapped up a long-running sting by busting a heroin ring that operated in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois for a decade. Thirty people were arrested. If convicted, some could receive life sentences.
So, framed in the context of the war on drugs and the racial disparity in its results so far, what happened to Jamal Lewis is less than shocking. It's only shocking in that it happened to someone we all supposedly know.
Very simple stuff: Drug addicts and drug dealers go to jail, and new ones, young ones, replace them.
The temptation for young men to get involved in this commerce remains high. The risk of dropping out of school and getting arrested, for the black male, remains high.
The Justice Policy Institute -- another one of those annoying think tanks armed with statistics we hate to hear -- says African-American men who drop out of high school are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white males who fail to graduate.
"At the present rate of incarceration," says Schiraldi, quoting from Department of Justice reports, "one-third of all black male babies born in 2001 will be in prison at some time in their lives."
It's still easier to buy drugs than to get treatment in this fair land. The demand remains so the supply never ends.
Unless something changes, we'll keep building prisons and spending money on the Great Drug War that would be better spent on addictions treatment, job training and K-12 education.
It's a shame what has happened to Jamal Lewis, and it will be a tragedy if the charges prove substantial and true. But no more of a tragedy than all lives wasted and lost in this long and futile war.
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