Over the past few weeks, much of our student body has focused on the midterm elections. Many students argued over local campaigns, lamented the impending takeover of Congress by the Republican Party, laughed at congressional candidate gaffes and watched Nate Silver’s election predictions change in real time. After hearing seemingly endless discussions about the outcomes of this election, I couldn’t help but feel that the fairness of the system itself was being taken for granted. I felt compelled to write an op-ed about the systematic, legal disenfranchisement of millions of black men in America. Until restrictions on voting are relaxed for non-violent drug offenders, a specter of discrimination will continue to mar our democratic system.
5.85 million people are legally disenfranchised by the criminal justice system in the United States. This is 2.5 percent of the voting-age population. Four million of the disenfranchised are people who are out of prison on probation or parole, or have completed their sentence entirely. I’m not talking about those convicted of murder, rape or domestic violence. The murderer-behind-bars is atypical amongst this group. In fact, the majority of those without the right to vote are people out of prison still saddled with criminal records for non-violent, drug-related offenses.
While studies show that people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates, in many states black men are sent to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than whites despite making up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population. The imbalance is the result of three decades of discriminatory legislation that developed out of Reagan’s “War on Drugs.” The never-before-seen draconian legislation included mandatory minimum sentences, severely punishing users of crack-cocaine (who are primarily black) while the primarily white users of the exact same drug in powdered form received reduced sentences. The weight threshold for a felony for powdered cocaine was 100 times larger than crack-cocaine for years. Three-strike laws sent drug-offenders to prison for life after three non-violent drug offenses. In California, for example, black men account for three percent of the population but 44 percent of three-strikes prisoners.
The policing of drug laws has focused primarily on inner-city black communities, sending a disproportionate number of black men to jail. From the 1980s through the 2000s, billions of dollars were cut from social service and rehabilitation programs and redirected into surveillance and policing, creating a prison system that is seven times larger today than it was in the 1970s. This is a system far more committed to punishing crime than to providing opportunities for success. In many cities in the U.S., up to 80 percent of black men now have drug offenses on their record, subjecting them to legal discrimination for the rest of their lives.
We’ve developed a criminal justice system whose ring is eerily similar to the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th century and slavery before it. There are more black men legally barred from voting in the U.S. today than there were in 1870, the year the 15th amendment was passed to prohibit laws that deny the right to vote based on race. And there are more African Americans under correctional control than there were slaves in 1850. Although the overall population has grown significantly, the figures are striking nonetheless. In fact, the laws that deny felons the right to vote were originally passed alongside the array of Jim Crow voting laws like literacy tests and poll taxes. If the argument behind disenfranchising felons is that they’ve broken the contract of citizenship in America, then this contract is clearly flawed.
Fortunately, some progress has been made. California just passed Proposition 47, which will downgrade many nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, and reduce felony convictions by nearly 40,000 per year. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act and recent announcements by Eric Holder also indicate progress on reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences and easing mandatory minimum sentencing. But this is a timid first step. Not only should all people with non-violent felony convictions be given the right to vote (especially those out of prison), but a significant dismantling of the U.S. prison system is also necessary before any defensible claims of true racial progress can be made about this country.
The legal disenfranchisement disproportionately forced on people of color in this country shouldn’t be a tertiary issue. As long as nearly one-tenth of the black population is legally denied the right to vote, the issue should occupy broad consideration every election season. Next election season, let’s spend less time obsessing over trends in polling data, and more time focused on those who can’t vote at all.
Jacob Sandry is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.