"The Sentencing Project"November/December 1995 issue of Poverty & Race
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Contact: Marc Mauer
In 1993, with research funding from PRRAC, The Sentencing Project published Does the Punishment Fit the Crime? Drug Users and Drunk Drivers, Questions of Race and Class (available from The Sentencing Project, March 1993, 36 pp., $8), analyzing how these types of offenses are disparately treated along race and class lines. The study is one in a series of related research projects conducted by the Project and used to enhance community education while encouraging federal, state and local policy development regarding sentencing reform efforts.
The Sentencing Project pursues a variety of activities designed to highlight issues of racial disparity within the criminal justice system and advocates for more just policies. In October, the Project released a five-year follow-up to its 1990 report documenting that nearly one in four young African American males was under some form of criminal justice supervision. The new study, Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later, finds that almost one in three (32.2%) Black males in the age group 20-29 are in prison or jail, or on probation or parole (see Resources section under "Criminal Justice" for ordering information).
The study also found that rates of criminal justice control have increased at an even more dramatic rate for African American women-a 78% rise from 1989 to 1994. Much of this increase is attributed to the impact of the "war on drugs." In the five-year period 1986-91, for example, the number of Black women incarcerated for drug offenses increased more than eight-fold.
The study has received extensive national attention among policy makers and media. It has been featured on all radio and television networks, and led the New York Times to editorialize that these numbers "should set off alarm bells from the White House to city halls-and help reverse the notion that we can incarcerate our way out of fundamental social problems." In, his October 16th address on race relations, President Clinton asked "every white person here and in America to take a moment to think how he or she would feel if one in three white men were in similar circumstances."
At the moment, there is a good deal of public concern regarding racial disparities and the criminal justice system. In particular, issues regarding drug policies, the crack/ cocaine sentencing disparities (reportedly the cause of recent uprisings in federal prisons) and law enforcement practices are being widely discussed. It remains to be seen how these issues will be addressed by policy makers and communities at a national and local level in the months ahead.
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