National Association of Drug Court Professionals

Drug courts, treatment programs chipping away at numbers of imprisoned black males
By Sara Solovitch
Public Access Journalism


As a longtime crack addict from Lexington, Ky., George Moorman was one more black male being churned through America’s criminal justice system until one day in 1997, when he came before a drug court judge for stealing a camcorder.

“He decided to put me in the drug court program – he told me I was too intelligent to go to the penitentiary,” recalls Moorman, who, at 54, just earned a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Kentucky. “I’d already made the decision to change. But saying you’re going to make a change doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. You have to have the support.”

Finding that support is difficult under the mass of statistics that have piled up in the 26 years since America declared a war on drugs. Increasingly harsher sentencing mandates have stacked the numbers against African American men, resulting in prisons becoming the largest treatment centers in the country.

Today, African Americans comprise 62 percent of imprisoned drug offenders, though they are only 13 percent of the national population. One out of every 115 black males enters prison each year on a felony drug crime, compared with one of every 1,150 white men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And black youths are admitted to state correction facilities for drug offenses at 48 times the rate of white youths, according to a report by the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative.

“There’s an attitude of hopelessness and despair that many blacks have as a result of unemployment,” says Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., executive director of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition. “The only way we can cope with it is by starting with youngsters in the third grade, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The NAADPC, an umbrella group of 23 professional organizations, is spearheading an educational response with a 10-year goal to reduce the number of black inmates and double the number of black professionals. Among its key plans: an internship program to identify gifted eighth graders in specific subject areas and pair them with black mentors in law, medicine, engineering and other fields.

“We’re saying, let’s go back to the ideas of Booker T. Washington,” says Burnett, the first African American magistrate, now retired, from the U.S. Magistrate in Washington, D.C. “Don’t let’s wait for government handouts. Let the black community come together in a spirit of self-reliance.”

Other groups are looking and listening more closely to create or fix programs to chip away at the numbers.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., a review of court records showed that minority juveniles were significantly more likely than white offenders to miss their early morning court hearings. Interviewers found most of the black and Hispanic youths were traveling to the courthouse from Watsonville, a 45-minute drive from the south. In response, a new courtroom was opened there and the failure-to-show rate dropped.

In Northeast Philadelphia, The Bridge, a residential treatment and continuing care program, embraces the participation of families, churches and schools to “resocialize” African American teenagers who’ve been thrown out of other juvenile justice programs.

“One of the biggest things we look for is trauma,” explains director Angelo Adson, adding that 80 percent of the youths have experienced some significant form of it.

“As a result, most of them have some kind of post traumatic stress disorder,” he says. “Yet the majority are diagnosed with conduct disorder – and it’s exacerbated when they go into a juvenile justice facility,” where they typically spend 200 or more days before being referred for treatment. For their white peers, referral comes in a mere 40 days.

Says Adson, “That disparity speaks volumes about how kids are evaluated.”

Hundreds of studies have seized on explanations for the disparity in treatment. But most start in the courtroom, with the simple judicial distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The two drugs contain the same active ingredient; the only chemical difference is that crack is mixed with baking soda and then heated. It is sold in smaller, cheaper quantities and widely regarded as a “black” drug.

The biggest difference is what happens when dealers come before a judge. A five-gram sale of crack automatically means a minimum five-year sentence, but a dealer in powder cocaine has to sell 100 times that amount – or 500 grams worth – to get the same sentence.

The results? In 1986, before the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than that of whites. Just four years later, that number was 49 percent higher.

“It’s so much easier to arrest a crack dealer on the street rather than someone in a business suit who’s selling pot and cocaine,” says Kurt Schmoke, former Baltimore mayor and current dean of Howard University’s Law School, who is leading a legislative effort to untie judges’ hands and allow them to sentence drug offenders on a case-by-case basis.

Widening the gap is the creation of drug-free zones – typically 1,000-foot perimeters around schools, public housing complexes, parks and playgrounds, in which the penalties for drug offenses are significantly harsher. Whole inner-city neighborhoods may qualify as drug-free zones. In Newark, N.J., for example, drug-free zone laws cover three-quarters of the city and require judges to lay down mandatory minimum sentencing terms.

The ramifications reach far beyond prison. A federal drug conviction prevents an offender from obtaining future education loans and work-study grants, and bans parents from receiving food stamps and welfare benefits. It has disenfranchised 1.4 million African-American men from permanently voting – a rate seven times the national average.

“It has so many debilitating consequences that it is counterproductive to the goal of trying to rid us of a drug problem,” says Schmoke. “Rather than being punished for that one act, it’s an ongoing handicap that prevents you from being rehabilitated. And it’s driven mostly by politics rather than science."

Recent research suggests that uneven incarceration rates may even help explain disproportionately high rates of AIDS in the black community. According to the latest statistics from 2004, black men and women accounted for 20,965 AIDS cases, compared with 12,013 for whites and 8,672 for Hispanics.

“We’re looking at a three-headed monster: addiction, AIDS and crime,” says Schmoke. “You have to have a good public health policy to go after AIDS and addiction. Otherwise, you’re just churning the same people out over and over again.”

With the foresight of one judge and the support of a strong drug court program, the cycle has stopped for George Moorman, who vowed that he would redress every arrest and negative mark on his record with something positive.

“When I came to drug court, they were so strict, they gave me so much to do, that I couldn’t think of doing anything else. I decided to trust them with my life, basically. They said, ‘Go to a meeting.’ I went to a meeting. They said, ‘Call in every day, three days a week.’ I called.”

Something clicked. “ I realized I was 44 years old, short, black and handsome – and I hadn’t done anything that mattered to me, my family, or society ¿ And right now I am in my house looking at my walls and they’re filled with certificates, outstanding achievement awards, dean’s awards, degrees, and awards for community service.

“It’s like some unfinished business,” he says. “You have to clean up before you can move forward. I brought drugs into my community. By me using drugs I caused someone else to use drugs. I gloried in it. I sanctioned it. I had to go back and clean up what I’d messed up.”

(Sara Solovitch is a freelancer writer and former Knight Ridder reporter.)


From the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's "Silent Treatment: Addiction in America" project, produced by Public Access Journalism LLC.