African American News

"The Master of My Fate - Commentary by Joseph C. Phillips"

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Prior to the recent Supreme Court decision rolling back the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the punishment for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine was a minimum 5 year prison sentence. "Simple possession of any quantity of any other substance by a first-time offender-including powder cocaine- was a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of one year in prison."

I think it important to recall that in the mid 1980’s when these sentencing guidelines came into effect America was experiencing a surge in violent crime much of it fueled by the introduction of a new and extremely profitable (to say nothing of addictive) form of cocaine – Crack. There was tremendous violence associated with the crack cocaine trade as drug gangs fought over territory. There was a rise in gang activity and the front pages of our daily newspapers were filled with drive by shootings and turf wars between men that wore blue bandannas and men that wore red ones. We were also reading about the toll crack addiction was taking on families. The media told us that our neighborhoods were filling with crack babies – children born addicted to cocaine because their mothers smoked the deadly toxin while being pregnant. Americans were rightly concerned and took action to address what at that time was a cultural and law enforcement crisis. There were studies at the time indicating that the introduction of crack raised the level of crime in our communities by 10% so our representatives in congress decided to take a tough stance and introduced harsh sentencing guidelines for selling crack cocaine. The guidelines were passed with bipartisan support and this particular issue was of particular interest of the congressional black caucus as Crack cocaine was having a particular negative impact on Black communities.



I am as in favor of strong law enforcement as anyone. I have little sympathy for men and women that prey on the innocent hard working members of the community, wrecking lives, planting the seeds of anguish and despair. I am particularly critical of men that are guilty of criminal behavior as this runs counter to what I see as one of the primary duties of men: to be guardians of the home and of the community not parasites on that community. I am, however, uncertain that society gains very much by sentencing thousands of young Black men to prison for non violent drug offenses. The sentences introduce them into a system from which it is difficult to extricate themselves and begins the downward path to joblessness, absentee fatherhood and more criminal behavior. In short creating more of the very behavior we are trying to discourage.

The few thousand Black men in prison for non violent drug offenses are not career criminals – yet – and their incarceration does not represent the best our justice system has to offer. In fact I would argue that it undermines faith in that very system especially among Black folk. I therefore greeted the recent decision by congress and our Supreme Court to eliminate these sentencing disparities gladly. It represented to me a step—a small step in the direction of bringing healing and more importantly restoring opportunity to so many in our community. Yet it is only part of the solution.

Studies show that 50% of inmates have drug and alcohol problems. A large number used drugs immediately prior to their offense and many grew up with addicts as parents. When we are discussing non violent offenders I think it may be prudent to spend a bit more time with rehabilitation as opposed to tossing folk under the jail. We have tried for many years to attack the supply side of this equation; it is in my humble opinion time to begin addressing the demand side. There are folks a lot smarter than I am encouraging the government to begin to approach the drug war as a health issue as opposed to strictly a law enforcement issue. Do we have enough rehabilitation centers? How can we reduce the time men must wait to enter a rehab facility? Do we have enough counselors? And what do we do once these men (and women) have completed their punishment? These are some of the questions we need to begin asking.

We also need to get a handle on single parenthood and absentee fathers.

I can not--and responsible members of our community can not--stress enough the effects single parenthood has on the development of children and how that development translates into criminal behavior in the community.

A few numbers to consider: A study that looked at the relation between divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birthrates and violent crime between 1973 and 1995 found that nearly 90% of the change in violent crime rates can be accounted for by the change in percentages of out-of-wedlock births. A child growing up in a single-parent home (usually female-headed) is seven times as likely to be a delinquent. Even controlling for race, parents income and education adolescents from a single parent home were twice as likely to have pulled a gun or knife on someone in the past year. 70% of kids -- and 93% of girls! -- in juvenile facilities came from non-intact homes. Children from fatherless homes are

20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders.
14 times more likely to commit rape
9 times more likely to drop out of high school.
10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances.
9 times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution.
20 times more likely to end up in prison.
These are sobering statistics. A change in the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine will have very little effect if we do not begin to commit this community to raising our children in two parent homes. There is nothing partisan in that, nothing conservative or liberal. It is simply a fact.

Finally there must be a corresponding responsibility on the part of citizens to avoid drugs and alcohol, obey the law and to borrow from the title of a Spike Lee joint: “Do the Right Thing.” There must also be a continued demand by the rest of us that our fellow citizens engage in moral and ethical behavior. We must insist that concepts like nobility, duty and honor are not sacrificed on the alter of relativism. Nothing distresses me more than the emails I receive attempting to explain away the anti-social and criminal behavior of some of our neighbors as the result of poverty and or racism. (Left unanswered of course is why they who have also been targets of racism and poverty are not engaged in criminal behavior.) There is much pathology one can lay at the feet of racism, but destroying the lives of our children and turning our communities into thugocracies is not one of them. I dare say those emails have not come from folks that actually live near a crack den or who fear allowing their children out of the home lest they fall prey to some act of violence directly or indirectly tied to drugs or gangs. Let us be absolutely clear that ones moral and ethical obligations do not cease to exist because of poor circumstances nor are they altered because of the existence of (pick your favorite)-ism.

To suggest that people attempt to live lives of virtue is not simplistic. It is in fact wisdom that reaches back to antiquity. It is the same philosophy preached in our houses of worship each and every Sabbath day. Neither is the suggestion that men have power to change their own lives unsympathetic. Without question there are ways each of us can contribute to the uplift of our communities. However, no amount of volunteering will replace the difficult work each individual must make. Whether it concerns sexual behavior, decisions concerning our education or how we conceive of civil behavior, when it comes to creating lives of purpose and fulfillment nothing will replace the individual accessing the wisdom that has been passed down through the generations in order to make good decisions. In the words of the poet William Ernest Henley, “It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll. I am the master of my fate I am the captain of my soul.”

Joseph C. Phillips is the author of “He Talk Like A White Boy” available wherever books are sold.


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