Commentary: Looking Behind Bars

By Derrell Connor Special To Channel 3000

I attended the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, celebration at the state Capitol last week. It?s a great event and a wonderful opportunity to participate in honoring a man who stood for justice and equality for all. Annually, the event features a keynote speaker who shares his or her work and life experiences, and puts things in perspective in terms of who Dr. King was, and what he believed.

This year?s address was given by Michelle Alexander, a well-known civil rights lawyer who has written a book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” In the book and in her address, Alexander points out that while we no longer openly discriminate against African Americans and other people of color, mass imprisonment has, in effect, turned them into permanent second-class citizens. Because once you are a convicted felon, you no longer have the right to vote, and you can be discriminated against when it comes to employment and housing. And because there are more than two million African Americans in the criminal justice system ? either incarcerated, paroled or on probation ? it in effect legalizes and leads to Jim Crow-era inequalities.

Most people will cite the crime rate among communities of color as the main reason for the disproportionate incarceration rates. But it?s not that simple. When you look at the crime statistics for people of color over the past 15 to 20 years, they have fluctuated while the rate of incarceration for the same groups has continually risen. The biggest reason for this is the war on drugs.

I don?t like illegal drugs. I?ve never used them. I have members of my family who?ve been hooked on them for years. Some have spent time in prison for selling drugs and drug possession. Over the years I?ve had friends who?ve never been able to completely rid themselves of the lure of the quick high, and they?re now gone because of it. Many of you probably know someone who?s battled or is battling drug addiction. It?s not pretty.

So I understand the desire and need to eradicate illegal drugs from our society. But instead of going after the drug kingpins and others who are responsible for bringing illegal drugs into America, we?ve been locking up mostly low level street dealers who?ll just end up being replaced by another one in 15 minutes, as well as non-violent drug offenders. And instead of treatment centers for addicts, we?re building more prisons.

The war on drugs is fought primarily in poor neighborhoods and communities. Black and brown people are arrested, convicted and incarcerated the most, even though statistics repeatedly show that the rate of drug use among blacks and whites are virtually identical. The difference is that, regardless of race, poor folks don?t have the means to hire good legal counsel to represent them.

But I think this is also an issue of personal responsibility. No one forces anyone to stand out on the corner and sell drugs or to smoke, inhale or inject themselves with illegal substances. Those are decisions people make on their own. So while I sympathize with Alexander on her point that too many young people of color are incarcerated because of minor drug offenses and inefficient legal counsel, I can?t get past the fact that the majority of people caught up in the system are there because of the choices they?ve made. And if Dr. King were alive today, I?m guessing that he would feel the same way.