Though Kanye West’s rambling visit to the White House last week, ostensibly to talk about criminal justice reform, is being widely derided as a photo op for both Mr. West and the president, there are some encouraging developments underway in that area.
In an unexpected move from a self-described “law and order” administration, President Donald Trump recently signaled his support for the First Step Act, which passed the House earlier this year and is designed to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. Unfortunately, this seems to be an issue on which the Republican party is not in agreement; the effort has been vehemently opposed by conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
For almost 50 years, the federal government has been carrying out a campaign, in plain view, that has made criminals out of millions of people for nonviolent crimes. The war on drugs, while entirely ineffective at reducing the distribution or consumption of illegal drugs, has been incredibly efficient at funneling entire minority groups into prisons.
Thanks to mandatory minimum sentences and “tough on crime” policies that were enacted in the 1980s after the introduction of crack cocaine, the prison population skyrocketed. Between 1980 and 2016, the number of people in jail for drug offenses rose from 40,900 to more than 450,000. That is nearly a third of the state and federal prison population today.
Of the roughly 2.3 million people in America’s prisons, 40 percent are black, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. If you are a black man in America, you have a one in three chance of being jailed during your lifetime, according to Bureau of Justice statistics compiled by The Sentencing Project.
While incarcerated, prisoners are put to work, and while they are technically paid, the wages are so low as to be essentially nonexistent. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the average wage for a prison worker is 86 cents an hour, and can go as low as 14 cents. Due to a legal loophole, work done in prison is not technically considered employment, and is therefore immune from laws such as minimum wage requirements that are meant to protect employees.
As you can expect, when an entire population of people is targeted by policies and law enforcement that is designed to move them into the criminal justice system, it has an overall negative affect on that population. Black communities across the country continue to languish in poverty in part because it’s so difficult to get or maintain a job with a criminal record. In some places, entire generations are forced to grow up without their fathers, with their only expectation for the future being that someday they will probably end up in jail too. Nothing about this system is just. This is modern day slavery, a term many in power refuse to acknowledge.
Proponents of minimum sentencing, like United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will point out the fact that if you look at crime statistics, the tactic would appear to be working. Crime, particularly violent crime, has been decreasing since the 1990s. But correlation is not causation, and according to the National Research Council, while it has been somewhat of a factor, the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing on decreased crime rates is not significant.
The Trump White House has pleasantly surprised me with their support of this issue, and I am encouraged to see them addressing something that could have such a significant impact on the lives of black Americans. I hope that conservatives in the GOP and the Justice Department will take a hard look at the facts and support this important legislation because their arguments against it are currently based on outdated reasoning and faulty statistics that have condemned thousands of black Americans to modern day slavery, and it needs to stop.
Kevin Shird (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Baltimore youth-activist, public speaker and author. His most recent book, “The Colored Waiting Room”, explores the personal life of Dr. Martin Luther King through interviews with his barber, Nelson Malden.