If the NAACP National Voter Fund had released its new study of racial disparity in the Texas criminal justice system a year ago, the results might have been easier to dismiss as mere statistics serving a political agenda.
But the recent focus on the Tulia drug sting scandal - in which 46 people, most of them African-American, were falsely arrested, convicted, and jailed on the basis of a single narcotics investigator's testimony - has amplified a central thesis of the study: that African-Americans are unfairly targeted for drug offenses, receive harsher treatment in court, and are incarcerated in wildly disproportionate numbers.
What Tulia didn't tell us, and what the study attempts to explain, is the pricetag for this ongoing crackdown: A twentysomething gets busted with a bag of pot and forces his family into economic despair. State taxpayers pay an enormous price - in the cost of jailing prisoners, social services for the family members left behind, and in reacclimating the ex-con into society.
Anthony Barber, outreach coordinator for the National Voter Fund - the legislative advocacy arm of the NAACP - says the impetus for the study came from the organization "doing a lot of justice-reform legislation that began in February. One of the things we found was the discrepancy of formerly incarcerated people."
The NAACP commissioned the Steward Research Group to look at the repercussions from the state's 10-year tough-on-crime crusade. The NAACP found evidence to support this law-and-order campaign, contending that violent crime has diminished in Texas over the last several years, and noting that minorities have benefitted greatly from this decrease. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety statistics, since 1990, the percentage of violent crime has decreased from a peak of 840 incidents per 100,000 people in 1991 to 545 incidents in 2000. Property crimes decreased during the same period from 7,065 incidents per 100,000 people to 4,410.
From the beginning, however, the NAACP's primary concern was the state's handling of drug offenses. The study found that although African-Americans make up only 11.5 percent of the state's population (based on the 2000 Census), they constitute 42.1 percent of Texas' prison population. It also estimated that incarceration of African Americans cost the state nearly $1.3 billion in lost economic productivity. Most persuasively, the study determined that moving non-violent drug offenders from incarceration to drug-treatment programs would save this revenue-strapped state more than $183 million.
"There is no rehabilitation in the Texas Department of Corrections," Barber says. "And they're closing down the only avenues that they have down there now. They're firing chaplains, and they just gave notice to 107 counselors that there wouldn't be any jobs available for them.
"If we're saying we're trying to rehabilitate them, then let's do something to rehabilitate, and not put them in a cell and lock them up, where they can only learn one thing: how to dislike society, how to be a more effective drug dealer, a more effective criminal."
The issue has personal resonance for Barber, who served seven years in the Texas correctional system for a 1979 robbery he says he didn't commit. "Because of the people I hung around with, my name came up and I was sent to prison, and it took me seven years to get me out. Luckily, I was able to write my own appeal and get myself out."
But Barber says the arrest plagued him for years after his release, popping up on computer searches by prospective employers, and diminishing his opportunities to make an honest living. His own experience convinces him that young drug offenders are needlessly having their lives ruined by a system that can't - or refuses to - distinguish between those who are threats to society and those who are merely threats to themselves.
"You're taking away a father's right to be a father, which takes money out of the household," Barber says. "Some of the people who've been affected are just average people who smoke weed. They're not violent. They're breaking the law, but they're not out there robbing a store or anything.
"When you take that father out of the mix, and you leave a family to be raised by a mother, they're out there struggling. Sometimes they have to get on public assistance, which puts them back in the neighborhood where all the drugs are."
While an argument can be made that African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated in Texas simply because they commit a disproportionate percentage of crime in this state, this logic crumbles when addressing drug offenses. Studies have suggested that drug use among whites is at least as high as that of African Americans, yet the numbers - and the evidence of cases like Tulia - point to an imbalance in the way drugs laws are being enforced.
According to Graham Boyd, Director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Drug Policy Litigation Project, to receive federal funding, task forces must have good numbers, and targeting minorities is an easy way to pad their statistics. "The $200 million dream of the task force has been a nightmare for the African American residents of Texas," Boyd said in a press statement.
Barber adds: "We felt that people weren't really looking at that imbalance. So we wanted to educate the public on the incarceration rate, and given the budget deficit, how to save money." •