In the winter of 1992, cocaine dealing was the fastest-growing felony in Charlottesville, and it resulted in average sentences almost four times longer than those given burglars.
Drewary J. Brown, a Charlottesville civil rights leader, warned that the community was losing a generation of black youngsters whose potential as future husbands and job-holders was going up in smoke as they were sent to prison on drug felonies.
“They are branded,” he said of the young men caught in the crack cocaine trade.
Brown said many black women told him, “I can’t find a young black man out there who hasn’t been in trouble.”
A member of Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s regional jail board for many years before he died in 1998, Brown said young men arrested in the nation’s war on drugs were getting the wrong message when they saw cocaine sentences averaging more than four years in local courts while burglars got an average of 14 months. “You are telling [a young dealer] to break into the house,” Brown said.
He was referring to sentencing data in The Daily Progress’ “Separate Justice” series of stories — which reported dozens of findings, some of which led to community reforms. The study was published a few weeks after Bill Clinton was first elected to the White House.
The series showed that the war on drugs reversed decades of progress toward racial equality in Charlottesville. It revealed that one-sixth of the city’s young black men were charged with a felony, mostly drug offenses, each year.
The study also found that while more whites than blacks used the drug nationally, nine of 10 charged with cocaine crimes from 1989 through 1991 locally were African American.
“I’ve always felt that black people’s life was not worth as much as white people’s life,” Brown bemoaned, also noting that young black men sent behind bars for dealing cocaine were held usually without drug treatment and given sentences longer than for many other crimes.
“Is anybody going to hire them?” he asked.
As a reporter and editor at The Progress, I was on the team that researched and wrote 18 articles in the six-day “Separate Justice” series. It involved collecting 28 variables for each of more than 1,300 criminal cases heard from 1989 to 1991 in four city and county courts.
We conducted dozens of computer runs of the data with the aid of University of Virginia sociology professor Steven Nock and did scores of interviews with defendants, community leaders, lawyers, judges, police officers and policy experts.
Even police chiefs and judges concluded the escalating war on drugs was failing and wrecking the economies in poor communities, creating huge numbers of young African American men stripped of their rights who could not find jobs. The drug war was tearing apart families.
Problems that police could not solve were thrust upon them, police chiefs said. “Unfortunately, our reaction has been in too many cases that if we can’t solve the problem we just increase the penalty,” said John Miller, at that time Albemarle County’s chief of police. “We have certainly found [that] doesn’t solve the problem.”
What has changed since the “Separate Justice” series?
The drug war has slowly diminished from that period, when cocaine cases accounted for 42% of all local prison terms longer than one year. And a movement to end that war is gaining bipartisan political support.
Despite a slow crawl away from “tough on crime” sentencing and harsh policing in some black communities, our jails and prisons remain warehouses for many non-violent drug offenders.
Police are more militarized than they were in 1992, and we are learning that increases in body armor and riot gear exacerbate tensions when street protests erupt. Trust between police and residents of mostly black neighborhoods remains low.
Clearly, systemic racism built into the drug laws persists, as it does in traffic stops and stop-and-frisk police procedures that disproportionately target African-American men. White parents do not share the same fears that black parents have about police arresting, beating or even shooting their children.
The origins of America’s drug wars fit a pattern that pits “us” against “them” and often demonizes racial minority groups.
Before crack cocaine was used to define a black “them,” opium laws made the “them” Chinese immigrants and marijuana laws targeted and marginalized Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants, to cite two examples.
The cost to society of demonizing and criminalizing minorities, generation after generation, is incalculably high.
We Americans will be richer, morally and economically, when we decriminalize or legalize drugs, empty more prison cells and treat drug users for substance abuse where appropriate as a health issue.
We will be richer, morally and economically, when police demilitarize and rein in use of deadly force so that black Americans can drive and survive without the fear of traffic stops escalating into violence.
We have seen enough “us” and “thems” to know that not every war is worth fighting, and police don’t have to dress like “Star Wars” armies to face their neighbors in peaceful protests.
Charlottesville’s communities are better than that.