A good friend of mine is a self-confessed thug. He has multiple felony convictions for drug sales, drug possession, a couple of grand thefts and burglaries.
He’s turned his life around. Thanks to a 12-step program, he’s clean and sober for close to a decade now. A regular job. A family.
I asked him what happened. What he told me was an all-too-common explanation. Basically – though he didn’t intend for it to happen – he followed in his father’s footsteps.
His dad was in prison for years. After a token family visit following his release, that dad disappeared. My friend explained that the only male role models he had were the older guys on the block. The guys that were slinging crack and breaking into the occasional house.
It’s not surprising that my friend wound up looking up to them. They had money. Cars. Girlfriends.
They ended up in prison. My friend did, too.
Unfortunately, until very recently selling crack cocaine carried a stiffer penalty than selling powder cocaine. A couple of decades ago, thanks to the War on Drugs and to fears of violent “super-predators” roaming the streets, federal mandatory minimum sentences were imposed on crack dealers.
Of course, those super-predators never actually materialized.
This began under President Ronald Reagan’s get-tough approach. When Bill Clinton was president, he toughened the laws, and as you may recall, he was taken to task last week for his role in putting thousands of young black males into prison.
My friend wasn’t a particularly good drug dealer. He told me he smoked most of his product. But getting caught with an amount that qualified him for “possession with intent to sell” meant that he spent years in prison.
He’s not unusual.
In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that thanks to those mandatory minimum sentences, tens of thousands of young, largely poor, black men were made into felons.
My friend’s conviction means that he’ll never be able to vote. He has to report those felonies on any job applications, meaning he’s stuck in second-class, menial jobs, even while he continues to rebuild his life and repair his relationships with the kids that he abandoned for the years he was in prison.
As is the case with many families, my friend was sent to prison in a place where, if his family wanted to see him, they had to spend hours on a bus and pay for an overpriced hotel room in the city closest to the prison.
It’s no secret that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world.
In 2009, black men and women made up more than 39 percent of that population, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
To put that into perspective, according to Alexander, there are more black men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than the total population of slaves in 1850.
Recently, as you may have heard, President Obama has begun commuting the sentences of nonviolent black men and women who have spent years in prison for crack crimes. Of course it’s too late for my friend.
As Claire Booth Luce said, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and that was the case for President Obama.
Last weekend, Facebook was blowing up with news that 35-year-old Wendell Callahan, who’d been arrested for killing his girlfriend and her two kids, had been released under Obama’s amnesty plan.
Except that never happened. Callahan was released before that went into effect, based on the parole board’s decision that he was non-violent.
Yes, some of the people who have been released or who will be released will slip back into a life of crime. Their opportunities are limited. But, in the words of Sir William Blackstone, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
It’s not only the people convicted under New Jim Crow that suffer. It’s their families. The mothers who have to raise children on their own. And it’s the young men that for another generation are looking to the older guys on the street corner for their role models.