President Obama: If You Want to Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Change Racist Drug Policies

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February 13, 2014 - By Melody Lee

Our nation’s racist drug policies and the racial inequality endemic to the American criminal justice system must be the key component of Obama’s address this Thursday. President Obama is expected to announce the launch of an initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper” that will direct resources towards creating opportunities and changing policies that have proven destructive for so many young Black and Latino men in our country.

If President Obama truly wants to dismantle structural barriers for young men of color, then it is imperative that he recognizes how marijuana prohibition and zero tolerance policies in our schools have played a significant role in disproportionately saddling this very demographic with criminal records.

For many young Black and Latino men, a low-level marijuana possession arrest is the first point of contact with the criminal justice system. In 2010 there were more than 800,000 people arrested for marijuana. In New York City, for example, nearly one million police hours were spent arresting and processing 440,000 people during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure from 2002-2012. These arrests are profoundly racially biased. Studies show that whites use and possess marijuana at similar if not slightly higher rates than Blacks and Latinos, yet data reveal that it is young men of color who are disproportionality targeted and arrested for marijuana possession.

Racial disparities are a pervasive thread among these arrests in regions all across the country. On average, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, and in some states with the worst disparities, like Iowa and Minnesota, Blacks are 8 times more likely to be arrested than Whites.

Marijuana prohibition has created the space for these systemic racist policies to not only exist, but thrive. The war on drugs is the New Jim Crow. Racist drug policies drive the criminalization of young men of color, causing an unprecedented expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline.

An arrest means that an individual is followed by a criminal record, but the consequences of such an arrest are far reaching and reverberate beyond the arrest itself. They can also have a detrimental impact on the opportunities available to a young person, including loss of employment, public housing, school financial aid, child custody, and immigration status.

Young men of color are at the highest risk for a marijuana arrest; they are also the same individuals who are most impacted by harsh zero tolerance policies in schools.

Zero tolerance policies have meant the suspension of millions of young people each year, and in some cases, expulsion. The young men of color who are most impacted by these harsh policies, are more likely to fall behind in school, disengage with their work, drop out, and ultimately end up being at higher risk of contact with the criminal justice system.

If Obama wants to see a reduction in the disturbing number of young Black and Latino men that are currently being funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, then the action steps must include two components:

First, true investment in the future of young men of color means creating opportunities for success in school and beyond. Second, we need immediate reform of the racist drug policies and harsh zero tolerance policies that have systematically criminalized an entire generation.

Melody Lee is a policy associate for the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office.

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