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Prisons: Presidential Pressure

For about 50 years before 1972, the rate of imprisonment in the United States was steady.

But in the 1960s, rising crime rates, urban riots and social tensions triggered tough-on-crime policies that would alter the size and racial composition of the prison system.

Here are major players in this movement and the role they played in satiating thepublic and political hunger for law and order.

Richard Nixon

First president to popularize the term “war on drugs.” Under his presidency, majority of funding goes toward treatment, rather than law enforcement.

Nelson Rockefeller

New York governor creates some of the harshest sentences for drug crimes. Under Rockefeller drug laws, penalty for possessing four ounces of cocaine or heroin or for selling two ounces is a mandatory prison term of 15 years to life. Today, nearly every state and the federal government have some form of mandatory sentencing.

Ronald Reagan

Prioritizes war on drugs, signing three massive drug bills in 1984, 1986 and 1988. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign becomes centerpiece of drug war. Drug laws in 1986 create mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses; creates 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

By early 1990s, nearly 90 percent of crack prosecutions target non-whites. In 1995, the average federal prison term for a crack offense surpasses that for murder.

George H.W. Bush

Spends more money on drug war than every president since Nixon combined. Federal inmate population nearly triples to 80,259, mostly for drug crimes. Roughly 60 percent are Black or Latino. In 1991, Blacks in prison outnumber whites, even though Blacks make up 12 percent of the population.

Bill Clinton

Oversees most intensive incarceration boom in U.S. history, with federal incarceration rates during his term more than that of Bush and Reagan combined. By 2001, 645,135 more Americans are in jail than on Clinton’s inauguration day. Fifty-five percent are Black or Latino.

George W. Bush

As governor of Texas, Bush oversees execution of a record 152 people. After 9/11, Bush targets immigration policy in the name of national security; most of the legal infrastructure was put in place during Clinton era. U.S. Patriot Act of 2001 makes it easier for the government and law enforcement to access private information, detain immigrants and search homes and businesses.

Barack Obama

In August, Obama signs new law reducing the crack/powder cocaine disparity in sentences. He has also pledged to push for immigration reform. Justice Department files lawsuit to block Arizona’s tough new immigration law.

3 Comments

  • Anonymous

    This is a legal tactic and avenue to bestow discrimination on minorities in large proportions. It starts at the local level with police throwing as many charges against the accused whether it is applicable or not. This way they ensure the accused is held on some charge whether it is applicable or not. This uduslly ranges from the most severe, a felony to a misdemeanor. It is atrocious the way these so called “upholders of the law” implement charges against innocent and/or unsuspecting people. Nothing will change unless we as a collective group stand up and fight for change. The time is now if we are to save our children from a system that has no problem with incarcerating 10 year olds for throwing a rock at another child and calling it “assault with a deadly weapon” Wake up people, don’t wait for it to happen to your loved one. Let’s organize and protest against this overt form of discrimination. You know, It’s really ironic that the very people complaining about the economy and the money being spent to help improove the economy accept the hundreds of millions of dollars in the judicial and penal system perfectly acceptable. Remember, if there children get into trouble they can call their judge friend or buy their child’s freedom. It’s all around you, look at the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans. Remember the old sayings “money talks” and “it’s not what you know but who you know”. That will never change. We must make a stance before it is too late.

  • For decades Civil Rights leaders have preached about the injustices in the penal system in America, but it has fallen on deaf ears. The racial mix in the system should be reflective of the population, but is not because crime is viewed differently when an individual is White. In North Carolina they searched for the Black man that Susan Smith said killed her boys; the plain clothes officers were acquitted after shooting 41 rounds into unarmed Amadou Diallo; and the Vietnamese boy was returned by the police to his murderer Jeffrey Dahmer despite being naked and covered in blood. Young white boys who shoot up schools and bring rifles and bombs to schools are still not profiled as potential killers, but 9 year old black boys who shoot rifles in the air that end with a victim dying is tried as an adult for murder. Three things must happen, the fear and the threat of African Americans and Latinos must end; discriminatory policies and enforcement laws must change; and the penal system must be reformed, accordingly.

  • An observation on the first guest post on Tuesday’s article about prisons. While it is correct that prosecution & prison sentencing proceeds much more vigorously against people of color, it is most definitly not correct to state that charges which have no relationship to the incident (called not applicable by the poster)are filed against someone by the police or district attorney. There must be a basis for filing charges against someone in court. It must be what is refered to as a “true bill” The police cannot make up charges and file them.Even if they could or did, the preliminary hearing is all about finding out if there is sufficient evidence to hear the charges in court and render a judgement based on the facts in the possession of the prosecution at the time of the hearing. That being so, the playing field in court is definitly not even. Anyoine with sufficient money and legal clout will get a much better deal whatever their color. Interestingly, these same observations apply to women facing charges. There are studies that show women receive harser sentences than males when they are convicted. While I do not wish to put forward the cliche that a public defender is somehow less able than a pricey attorney paid for by a rich defendant, The fact is that public defenders have fewer resources alloted to each case than do private attorneys who bill by the quarter hour. So it ultimately plays out the way it always does, the money money you have, the more “justice” you get and who controls most of the money in this country? White males for the most part.

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