In June, Senator Rand Paul wrote the following in USA Today, “Our government is simply too big and too out-of-control. When it comes to receiving fair justice, perhaps black Americans understand this best.”
Indeed. Paul was citing drug-sentencing laws that disproportionately punish African-Americans. He also noted that the federal government subsidizes law enforcement in ways in which minorities, even if inadvertently, become primary targets.
Paul makes important points about something too unjust to ignore.
The same government that harassed tea party and rightwing groups through the Internal Revenue Service last spring has long targeted African-Americans through the federal war on drugs. The New York Times reported in June that “Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates, according to new federal data.”
Sometimes conservatives have dismissively, or wrongly, attributed these types of arrest disparities to longstanding problems in the black community. While personal responsibility is key, we also can’t ignore a government that dispenses federal funds to law enforcement based on arrest quotas. This has inevitably led to racial profiling and a tendency for police to focus primarily on poor urban areas.
The American Civil Liberties Union reports, “when the federal government doles out hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to law enforcement each year, they require reporting on arrest numbers, including marijuana arrests. This creates a powerful incentive for police to aggressively go after people with small amounts of marijuana – it’s an easy way to get a lot of arrests.”
As Sen. Paul puts it, “Black Americans are being imprisoned far more than white Americans for marijuana possession for one primary reason: the federal government subsidizes it.”
Another ACLU report breaks down the numbers: “Today, black males have a 29% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, Latino males have a 16% chance, and white males have a 4% chance. Even though whites outnumber blacks five to one and both groups use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise: 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of those convicted for drug possession and 74% of those imprisoned for drug possession.”
Senators Paul and Mike Lee have taken up drug sentencing and prison reform. It is notable that two of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans have spearheaded an issue not typically associated with the right. To fight big government more comprehensively and honestly, more conservatives will need to do the same.