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EDITORIAL: Much-Needed Change

8/14/2013, 3 p.m.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

This Monday proved to be fortuitous for black and brown men in America because of two separate but related decisions that could be of potential importance to their lives and well-being.

In New York, Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin handed down a 195-page ruling calling the city’s stop-and-frisk law unconstitutional, adding that it violates the rights of minorities in the city. Her decision repudiates a central piece of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-crime tools.

She said the law encourages racial profiling and pointed to the disparity between the numbers of Latinos and African Americans stopped and searched by police, versus the rate at which their respective groups are held responsible for crime.

Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly claimed major success, citing the dramatic reduction of major crimes and homicides as proof of the law’s success. But Scheindlin said the stops indicated a widespread disregard for the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, and the Fourth Amendment which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure.

What Bloomberg, Kelly and the law’s supporters overlooked in their crime-fighting zeal is the corrosive effects of innocent black and Latino men and boys being stopped based on a hunch, bias and racial profiling. Innocent young men caught up in the gauntlet speak of the embarrassment and humiliation of being subjected to these searches. And others describe the fear of being stopped and harassed, and feeling that they’re not welcome in New York City.

Bloomberg was visibly angry at his news conference but he’ll get over it.

Scheindlin’s actions put a pause to this odious practice, and while Bloomberg plans to appeal, we hope that the judge’s prudent first step will lead to the law being tossed out permanently.

In the second development, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder announced a major policy shift in federal sentencing policies by instructing federal prosecutors to no longer impose charges on non-violent drug offenders that carry mandatory minimum penalties. Holder also told the audience at the American Bar Association in San Francisco that he plans to work with a bipartisan Congressional group to craft ways to give judges greater latitude in sentencing.

Holder said America’s criminal justice system is overwhelmed and prisons have been flooded with low-level drug offenders.

U.S. prisons are operating 40 percent over capacity, Holder said, and the prison population has grown at a clip of 800 percent since 1980. While the U.S. comprises five percent of the world's population, 25 percent of the world's prison population – 2.5 million people – are incarcerated in this country and one in every 37 persons is under the control of criminal justice agencies.While blacks comprise 13 percent of America’s population, almost 35 percent of those in U.S. prisons and jails are African American.

There is growing realization that millions of people’s lives have been perhaps unalterably affected by laws enacted in the 1980s to combat the crack epidemic. And wisely, Holder and others see the wisdom in revisiting this stubborn and deeply troubling issue.

In both of these cases, non-whites have been unfairly penalized because of their color, as well as the penchant of law enforcement to aggressively police minority communities. We know that police aren’t going to swoop into affluent neighborhoods to collar white people using illegal drugs.

Nationally, African Americans are almost four times more likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession even though both groups use the substance at similar rates.

So this boils down to a question of fairness and equality.

We applaud Holder’s decision because it is timely and necessary and because the so-called War on Drugs has outlived its usefulness.

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