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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2003

Liberty and justice for all here in America?

BY ROSE RUSSELL

Much squabbling has been heard recently regarding the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

When 19th century Baptist preacher Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge, he wanted to include the word “equality.” But the social climate prevented women and blacks from voting and also refused blacks civil rights. So he decided to end the pledge with “liberty and justice for all,” reflecting what was already in the preamble to the Constitution.

Bellamy might be appalled if he knew that “justice for all” is not applied to all Americans, especially African-Americans, in the criminal justice system.

Reports indicate that the prison population has climbed to more than 2 million. While that's shocking, it's startling that the single largest group behind bars is black males between the ages of 20 and 39. So, 12 percent of that population is incarcerated, while 4 percent of Hispanic males and 1.6 percent of white males in that same age group are in jail or prison.

No one wants any criminal to go unpunished, but the disparity is obvious.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy seems to have had a revelation about that since March when he voted to uphold minimum sentences of up to life in prison for three–time - but often small-time - convicts in California.

Under California law, a thief who steals about $150 worth of children's videos would get slapped with 50 years to life in prison.

Earlier this month, Justice Kennedy said, “Mandatory minimums are harsh and in many cases unjust.”

“Unjust” doesn't explain what's unreasonable and excessive.

In a 2000 report on prejudice in the juvenile justice system, statistics cited by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency were unsettling.

It showed that between 1978 and 1997, when blacks made up 15 percent of the population, blacks represented about a third of all referrals to juvenile court and 44 percent of those in juvenile detention. It also found that minorities were more often waived from juvenile to adult criminal court than whites when charged with the same crimes.

A report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in 1996 found that 39 percent of California's young adult black men in their 20s were either incarcerated or on probation.

Other findings from that study, according to the Los Angeles Times, indicated that blacks were charged under the three-strikes law at 17 times the rate of whites in L.A. and at 13 times the rate of whites in San Francisco.

The argument that blacks commit more crimes than whites is often used to justify what some say is perceived racial unfairness. But how can that be when a white cop is more likely to take a white kid caught doing wrong home, and a white cop who finds a black kid doing wrong is more likely to handcuff him and take him to the police station?

Prejudice and the stereotyping of minorities pervades every step of the criminal justice system.

A report last August by Ted Koppel of ABC News Nightline examined the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine users and those who prefer the powdered cocaine variety.

“If you're doing the powder cocaine in a corporate board room, nothing is probably ever going to happen to you,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told Nightline. “If you're doing the crack cocaine in an inner-city, you could spend years and years in jail.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the report said, about two-thirds of the people who use crack cocaine are white or Hispanic. However, it's peculiar that 85 percent of those convicted for selling or possessing crack in federal prisons are black.

Indeed, in the 1980s and early 1990s at the height of concern about crack cocaine, the cheap substance devastated many families from various groups and neighborhoods, and it shattered the black community. But is it fair that a 19-year-old black man got more than 19 years without parole for a first time offense, possession of crack cocaine?

Five grams of crack can land a person in prison for five years. A person with powder cocaine needs to be caught with 500 grams of it before he or she gets the same sentence.

“The sentences ought to be fair and just,” Alabama's Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions told Nightline. “I don't think the current law can be defended ... so I think it's time to fix it.”

Also in Koppel's report, Senator Leahy addressed the issue that sentences were tougher for people who possessed and sold crack.

Senator Leahy seemed to imply that the federal laws were implemented on “faulty assumptions.” Although some would argue otherwise, the senator seemed to hint that the plethora of crack babies was never realized to the extent expected. He also strongly implied that it was wrong for lawmakers to assume that violence related to the use of cocaine was more a result of violence involving crack rather than powder cocaine.

Just before President Bush took office he said the penalties for possession of crack and powder cocaine should be the same. But the Bush Administration has backed down, not wanting to appear soft on crime. It must not care about racial unfairness.

But this is America, where there is “liberty and justice for some.”



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