When I first saw this on Twitter yesterday, I was certain that the disparity figures reported by the ACLU marked a decrease from previous years, but they’re mostly unchanged over the past decade. Historically, the disparity for all drugs is even higher, particularly because of crack-cocaine enforcement.
I’ve been thrilled to see sharp, wonky folks like Matthews dive into this subject more and more since marijuana was made legal here and in Colorado (and here’s another post from Talking Points Memo, which has begun covering this topic with more frequency as well). But I think Matthews undersells the seriousness of the problem when he writes this:
How important is this? Well, while making up a quite small share of our prison population, marijuana possession charges make up nearly half of total drug arrests:
Obviously, being arrested without going to jail is a lot better than getting arrested and going to jail. But it’s still a major nuisance, leading to fines, long hours of community service and thousands of dollars in legal fees.
The downsides of having a marijuana arrest are often far worse than just fines and legal fees. Many of those arrested end up taking pleas in order to avoid jail. Part of that deal is that you plead guilty to a felony charge in order to avoid that jail term. And that felony charge goes on your record and follows you around for the rest of your life. For a young black man, often with little financial resources to get ahead in the first place, this makes it just about impossible to further their education or find employment. They become doomed to what has been appropriately described as the “new Jim Crow”, a second-class status that keeps them outside of the walls of opportunity for life.
The 4 to 1 disparity discussed by the ACLU doesn’t even take into account what happens after these arrests. Those with the resources to fight back can often get their charges reduced or thrown out. Those without them end up being told to plea guilty by an overworked public defender. To see the kind of impact this is happening in our major cities, just take a look at this chart within Matthews’ post:
For so many of the urban areas listed there, these arrests are portrayed as a public safety need. But they’re exactly the opposite. When you have an urban area that has problems with gangs – which thrive from the policies of prohibition in the first place – all this does is give those gangs more young people to recruit, young people that might have other avenues if they didn’t have a felony on their record holding them back. It’s not a coincidence that Chicago’s astronomical arrest figures for at-risk youth go hand-in-hand with its astronomical homicide figures. It’s what you should expect to happen when you do this.