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Study: Blacks in Illinois Five Times More Likely to Get Prison Sentences

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By J. Coyden Palmer, Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Crusader –

A commission convened to examine the impact of Illinois’ drug laws on racial and ethnic groups released its findings Jan. 31st, during a news conference at the James Thompson Center.

The results of the study show African Americans in Cook County were eight times more likely than Whites to be sentenced to prison if convicted of a Class 4 possession, low-level drug crime. Statewide, the data also indicated that sentencing was racially disproportionate based on the rate of drug arrests in 62 of the state’s 102 counties. The findings of the study prompted several recommendations to close the disparity gap.

“We need to change certain policies and practices so that justice is administered fairly across racial and ethnic lines, said State Sen. Mattie Hunter, of Chicago, who served as co-chair of the commission. “We need to divert non-violent drug offenders from expensive incarceration to rehabilitation programs, such as court-ordered drug treatment.”

The study also found that Afri- can American families are being affected by the sentencing laws, especially when it comes to Black males. Based on testimony during community hearings from family members and social workers, the study shows that families are affected when their loved ones return from prison and have a hard time finding legitimate employment.

“There is a public safety issue here, but we also have to look at the families that are being destroyed because their parents are not in the household,” Hunter said.

An unnamed local business owner suggested to the commission the creation of a special class of contracting provisions, similar to current minority- and women-owned business provisions, for employers who hire formerly incarcerated people.

Social service providers who testified for the study also said the problem of drug crimes need to be addressed on a more holistic approach. They say there is too much focus on law enforcement and punishment rather than treatment for those struggling with addiction, as was recommended by the commission.

Pamela Rodriguez is the president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC). She said the yearly cost of incarceration for one inmate is more than $25,000 whereas a drug treatment program for the same time frame is only $7,000. She said with the state being in such a financial crunch, not only is it a more effective and ethical way of looking at the problem, but it is sounder from a financial aspect as well.

“As a community-based agency that has worked with thousands of criminal justice clients since 1976, TASC strongly supports the recommendations presented in this report,” she said. “One of those recommendations is that there is a need for better data collecting because we need a more complete picture to see how widespread this problem is. And the solutions need to be as comprehensive as the problems.”

Rodriguez added the cost savings of alternative sentencing reduce the disproportion of ethnic minorities being sent to prison, in addition to saving money. She believes the current drug laws are ruining Black and Latino communities across the state, but stopped short of blaming any one entity. She said instead it is a “system failure” that needs to be addressed.

The commission also recommended that drug seizure monies, which currently go to local law enforcement agencies after the successful prosecution of a bust, have a fixed portion go to support treatment and diversion programs. The Crusader asked Sen. Hunter what amount of money Illinois law enforcement agencies receive from these drug seizures.

“We have no idea,” Hunter responded. “That is one of the best kept secrets around. When it comes to those forfeiture funds it’s kind of like ‘hands off’ to us. That is going to be a battle to find out that amount and how it is used. But, we hope to sit down with a lot of people to discuss this report while moving forward and perhaps then we can answer that question.”

Attorney Standish Willis, who also served on the commission, said there is a direct correlation between the findings in this report and how African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty in Illinois. Earlier this month the state legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, but Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to sign the bill.

“African Americans and Latinos are filling the prisons so some of the problems pointed out in this report will address many of those questions of arrest and prosecution in more serious offenses,” Willis said. “But we need more data. We cannot fashion policy to address the issues of the death penalty or drug crimes without the right data.”

Dr. Terry Solomon serves as the executive director for the Illinois African American Family Commission. She said one of the significant recommendations of the commission that needs to be implemented is not using felony drug convictions for employment opportunities. She said by doing so society is not allowing people who paid their debt to reestablish themselves among the working class, thus forcing them back into a life of crime, poverty or both.

“Drug use is a mental health issue so we need to start using mental health approaches to treat these issues as opposed to just incarcerating people,” Solomon said.

Illinois State Sen. Mattie Hunter talks to the media about the state commissioned study on how drug sentences are given out based on race.

Congressional Black Caucus Confronts GOP on Budget

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By Charles D. Ellison, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –

WASHINGTON — In sync with what football fanatics expect will be a bruising Super Bowl Sunday, political tensions on Capitol Hill are as hot as an Egyptian street fight with Democrats and Republicans poised for a bloody face-off over the nation’s finances. It’s the necessary, crucial time of year lawmakers love to hate, pushing their staffers to sweat over bulky Power Points and black ink in a complicated cage dance over how the federal government spends taxpayer money.

“The budget is a bold declaration of a nation’s priorities,” argues Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), the loquacious Methodist minister and former Kansas City Mayor who barely squeaked past a Republican challenge in his district during the 2010 mid-term election. “I always tell my church that if you want to know who a person is, look at their checkbook and how they handle their finances.” Back from what some observers described as near political death, Emmanuel sounds revived and recharged in his new role as two-year Chair of the Caucus, eager to tussle — and possibly deal — with conservative budget hawks circling over endless rows of line items.

Hill heads were turning and brows raised last week when the Caucus unveiled its budget recommendations for the year in a politico-studded event of the African-American Who’s Who in Washington, billing it as the first ever annual “Commission on the Budget Deficit, Economic Crisis and Wealth Creation.” Indeed it was a “first,” keeping in fashion with the dusty classroom clamor of Black History Month firsts and patronizing accolades.

The Caucus, that tightly-knit and reliably Democratic voting bloc that acts as a noisy thorn in the side of House Republicans, had been clowned for years about “the budget no one ever knows about,” quipped one amused and longtime senior Congressional aide at a recent staffer gathering. Press conferences and CBC Member statements were typically sporadic, with the CBC unable to coordinate an authoritative voice in annual budget swordfights.

Starting this year, Cleaver promises to change all that with an aggressive campaign waged on the Hill and beyond Washington. “You will find that, at least for the next two years, we will dramatize the CBC budget,” says Cleaver. “It is useless for us to present a budget that is virtually useless beyond the Beltway.”

As important to Cleaver is ensuring that the CBC agenda on national spending priorities resonates loud and clear with a core Black audience disproportionately crushed under the weight of a seemingly endless recession. While White House officials express cautious jubilance over the latest unemployment figures, with official rates dropping from 9.4 percent in December to an even 9 percent in January, attitudes in CBC offices are more reluctant. Black unemployment, for a multitude of reasons, remains stuck near 20 percent — officially. Many economists observing the situation are a bit more frank about the situation, and Caucus Members seem less inclined to celebrate incremental drops in high unemployment when they head back to districts where countless constituents are underemployed, out of benefits or off the grid.

“In Black America we need to stop the bleeding,” warns Cleaver.

As a prescription, the CBC Commission presented a three-prong approach, with prominent Black economists and Caucus Members mingling over topics such as: the balancing act between resource demand and fiscal restraint; getting in recession survival mode while “accelerating the recovery;” and finding ways to responsibly reduce the deficit without hitting damaged communities any harder.

“I am actually pretty excited about this,” says Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie, author of Whose Black Politics?, a study on generational divides in modern African-American politics. Gillespie teaches an annual class on the CBC budget and, so far, she’s impressed with the presentation for 2011. “They’re ahead of the curve on this one. They’ve managed the public relations on this pretty well,” said Gillespie.

But, Gillespie — like many other CBC watchers — warns against what she sees as an ingrained habit of drinking old wine in a new bottle. The academic yearns for some legislative creativity from the Caucus. “Because every year [the CBC budget is] usually very predictable in what it suggests. There are still some things in the budget that are unrealistic. It can’t be just saying ‘no social program can be cut.’”

At this point, with political power greatly diminished by the loss of Democratic majority last November, mixing it up by camera, web and microphone is about as good as it gets for the embattled Caucus. Putting a stop to economic hemorrhaging in the Black community means the CBC will need to raise its game in a process where political dynamics are as complex and critical as the policy proposed. Budget handling is an annual Washington sport, a hazing maze of winners and losers — with a lot of stalemates in a creamy middle. But, the stakes are particularly much higher this year with Members of all partisan stripes (even freshman oriented tea partiers), faced with almost impossible balancing between walking home federal bacon and talking bank account restraint. For a Member like Cleaver, that’s even more precarious given the tenuous political situation in his Missouri district, where he’ll be backed into forced moderation by more conservative Midwestern constituents and representing a population that is less than 30 percent African American.

It could be a reason why he’s put the Caucus in front of the process, say observers, a shrewd and glitzy media move aimed at driving the discussion weeks before an anxiously anticipated drop of the massive Obama Administration FY 2012 budget. The CBC Commission, while days after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, was still ahead of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) announcement recommending $32 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, including mind-numbing 20 percent agency budget cuts. Not only does it prompt both Congressional leaders and the White House to think clearly about the implications of budget choices on disadvantaged communities, it’s also an attempt to get an elbow in the discussion.

The problem, however, are incessantly partisan legislators searching for compromise in a sea where there is little of it. “How are we going to pay for last year’s tax cut?” asks Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the bookish Black Caucus point-man on all things budget and the guy now best known for his voluminous amicus-like brief arguing against the censure of colleague Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Scott believes the $850 billion tax cut compromise between President Obama and Senate Republicans has exacerbated an irreconcilable situation. “Nobody complains about how big it is, but everyone complains about how big this budget deficit is,” says Scott, pointing to the $1.4 trillion dollar federal deficit.

“Suggesting that you cut taxes before you cut spending is absurd,” adds Scott, ridiculing GOP plans for simultaneous tax cuts and what he argues are “draconian” spending cuts. Between Republican insistence on cutting and Democratic hopes for more federal spending, Scott is pessimistic about the chances of a bipartisan agreement during this budget cycle.

And when asked if the White House is giving any sign of absorbing any of the CBC recommendations, Scott’s voice seemed to retreat, masking any hint of what are widely known and infamous tensions between the Caucus and their former Member. “We make our recommendations and see what comes out.”

“We’ll see what’s in the bill,” added Scott. “It can’t be so good because we spent all the money last year.”

“I don’t see where the middle is on this,” agrees Artemesia Stanberry, political science professor at North Carolina Central University, a former CBC staffer and co-author of Stealth Reconstruction. “They’re not talking the same language. The middle ground was the tax cut compromise.”

 

U.N. Expert Examines Violence Against Women in the U.S., Gov't Response

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By Charlene Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –

Robin Levi has a simple point of view when it comes to violence against women in the United States and what the government should be doing to stop abuses. “What's really important is reminding ourselves the United States is not immune from human rights law,” said the human rights director of San Francisco Bay area-based Justice Now.

“Human rights law applies to everybody from the virtue of being human beings and that includes people in the United States and people in prison,” she said.

Though America regularly lectures other nations about women's rights and gender equality, activists and advocates say the U.S. has its own problems when it comes to women who are incarcerated and who find themselves in other vulnerable situations.

When a United Nations (U.N.) expert recently visited America to examine the status of women and violence, Ms. Levi, who works to end violence against women and stop their imprisonment, helped to coordinate the U.N. special rapporteur's visit to California.

Rashida Manjoo, who is examining the causes and consequences of violence against women for the United Nations, went on a two week tour in California as part of a six-state tour designed to gather facts and testimony about the problem.

Manjoo began her tour of detention centers and battered women's shelters in late January and will report her findings and recommendations to a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council this week.

The tour is a reminder that America is part of the international community and that it has to live up to its human rights obligations for everybody within its borders, Levi told The Final Call.

According to Levi, the current U.N. mission stems in part from a 1999 visit by then U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women by Radhika Coomaraswam.

Coomaraswam specifically looked at violence against women in prison, and Manjoo is here to see if changes and recommendations made a decade ago have occurred or not, Levi said.

The rapporteur found in 1999 that California (which had at the time the largest number of women incarcerated within the U.S.) had inadequate administrative or penal protections against sexual misconduct in custody. There was no comprehensive method for reporting or investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the state's facilities, and sexual misconduct became criminalized only in 1994.

Part of Coomaraswam's recommendation was that federal funding for state and correctional facilities should require that states criminalize all forms of sexual violence and misconduct between staff and inmates—whether consent was given by the inmate or not.

Levi said that what Manjoo could expect to find, certainly in California, is that sexual abuse has decreased somewhat, but racial disparities within prisons remain and have perhaps worsened.

In fact, she said, although the rapporteur in 1999 expected to find racial disparities in the make-up of women in prison, she was shocked at the overwhelming levels of racial disparity.

According to Human Rights Watch, 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States as of June 2009, with racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately represented.

A prison research and advocacy reform organization, The Sentencing Project, says Black women represent 30 percent of all women jailed in federal or state institutions and Hispanic women represent 16 percent.

“I think that she's going to find that the health problems are still there and perhaps worse. I'm hoping she'll look into some of the reproductive abuses that we've seen inside the California prison system in which primarily women of color have experienced increased levels of sterilization through hysterectomies, vasectomies and other methods,” Levi said.

Manjoo, a professor at the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, is particularly probing violence against women in prison and the military, sexual violence, gun violence, and the relationship between poverty and violence against women.

Visit coincides with federal legislation

“What we know is that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women and their children in the U.S. ... In some cases women who are in abusive relationships need to be able to flee their home, but if they don't have the option to go to a shelter or if they don't have another housing option, they may be forced to stay in abusive relationships,” said Attorney Sandra Park, of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

“Unless we look at how violence affects poor women, we are not addressing the issue at all,” Park told The Final Call.

Manjoo's visit is also critical because this year Congress will consider reauthorization of the Federal Violence Against Women Act, Ms. Park said.

The act was proposed in 2005 to help provide funding for domestic violence programs across the U.S., and provide protection against evictions of women after they were victimized.

The ACLU was instrumental in linking Manjoo to groups and individuals to make sure she received firsthand information about issues of violence plaguing American women.

Some landlords use “no criminal activity” provisions in their leases to evict women who have had to call police for domestic violence incidents.

Some workplaces penalize women who need time off for court appearances, or are being stalked by their abusers at work, Park continued.

Some companies have tried to improve on the issues and have adopted good policies such as informing security of an abuser's characteristics, changing employee phone numbers, or providing victims with escorts to their cars, she said.

Park hoped Manjoo's visit to New York to meet with the Service Women's Action Network about sexual assault in the military would raise awareness about how the U.S. military and Veterans Affairs Department largely ignore complaints.

According to Park, sexual assault and rapes in the military are extremely high and there are very few options for service members to pursue, except to report to their chain of command superiors.

There is no incentive for commanders to address complaints in serious ways because complaints reflect negatively on performance evaluations if commanders have reports of sexual assault within their units, she said.

“It's actually set up in a way that creates an incentive to try to squash those complaints or make them go away ... generally the military is treated differently from all other workplaces in the U.S. So the kinds of rights that a woman might have if she was sexually assaulted at work are totally inapplicable if you're a member of the military,” Park said.

Rep. West Muses on D.C. Statehood, and Congressional Black Caucus

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By James Wright, Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer –

Rep. Allen West (R-FL) is the first Black Republican to represent his state in the U.S. Congress since Josiah T. Walls, who served during the Reconstruction Era.

One of the two Black GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives said he is open to ideas regarding D.C. statehood and that he will be a full contributing member of the Congressional Black Caucus, despite his minority status politically in the group.

Rep. West, in an interview conducted by the Informer in his office in the Longworth House Office Building, said that he “does not know” whether the District of Columbia should become the 51 state in the Union.

“I have seen the license plates that say there should be no taxation without representation,” West, 49, said. “I have to do more research on the issue. The District of Columbia was designed to be the home base of the federal government so I would have to see what the Constitution says.”

West said that if District residents have obligations that other Americans have but do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress then a tax exemption should be considered.

“If you live in the District, perhaps an exclusionary zone should be set up where District residents do not pay federal taxes,” he said.

West was elected to represent the 22nd district of Florida on Tue., Nov. 2, 2010. He defeated incumbent Democrat Ron Klein by nine percentage points in a district that is 82 percent White and three percent Black, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. West lost to Klein in 2008 by nine percentage points.

Before West got into politics, he spent most of his career in the United States Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He retired in 2004 after an investigation of his conduct during the interrogation of a suspected terrorist detainee in Taji, Iraq.

West, along with Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), are the only Black Republicans in the 112th Congress. They are the first Black members of Congress from the GOP since J.C. Watts of Oklahoma stepped aside in 2003. West and Scott are products of the Tea Party movement, which calls for less government regulation and less taxation. The Tea Party movement was a driving force in the success of the Republican Party in the 2010 general elections.

West is a harsh critic of President Obama, saying that the president should be a “true” leader on race relations and that he should go to the theaters of combat when visiting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A popular speaker on the Tea Party and conservative circuit, West is scheduled to be one of the key speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which will take place this week in the nation’s capitol.

West gained national attention after the general election when he said that he would join the Congressional Black Caucus. Most political observers were surprised at his move, noting that Watts declined to join the group because he did not want to be affiliated with a race-specific organization while a member of Congress.

West, who was born and raised in Atlanta, said he is puzzled about why people question him on joining the CBC.

“Why would I not join?” West asked rhetorically. “My parents would be upset with me if they knew I did not join. The CBC deals with issues I care about.”

West was welcomed into the organization by then CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) after a discussion by its members. The last Republican to join the CBC was Gary Franks of Connecticut, who served in the House from 1991-1997.

West wants to make sure that his liberal and moderate colleagues in the CBC understand that he wants what is best for Black people, but sees things differently.

“I would say that many Black people were raised during my time with conservative principles such as faith, getting an education, and individual responsibility,” he said. “I remember growing up in Atlanta and seeing Auburn Avenue with all of its vibrant businesses. The sad thing is that is not the case now and no one in the CBC is talking about that.”

He said that everyone in the CBC wants quality health care but they differ on the methods. Many CBC members feel that the government should play the chief role of facilitating and delivering health care while West feels that the free market can do a better job.

The participation of West in the CBC was praised by George Mason University political scientist Michael Fauntroy.

“I was slightly surprised when I heard it, but I think it is a good thing,” Fauntroy, 44, said.

Fauntroy said that West, like his colleague, Scott, is in a difficult position because they are freshman members of the ruling party of the House, whereas the other Black members of that body are Democrats, the minority party.

“Many years ago, Black lawmakers like Adam Clayton Powell and William Dawson would receive letters from Blacks all over the country because they were the only Blacks in Congress at that time so they were expected to produce for Black people,” he said.

“West and Scott are in a similar position in that they have to be the ones to produce for Blacks because they are part of the Republican majority but they have junior status so there is little that they can do.”

West said one of his goals is to widen the political reach of Blacks.

“We need to open up the conversation because Blacks cannot expect to have power in this country when they vote 90 percent Democratic,” he said.

“You cannot put all of your trust in one political party. I know that Blacks will not change overnight or become Republicans in large numbers overnight, but we have to have the conversation about this.”

Will the Fall of Egypt Affect Black America?

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By Yussuf J. Simmonds, Special to the NNPA from the Los Angeles Sentinel –

There are many people who claim that Egypt is in the "Middle East" and contrary to that belief, Egypt is in Africa, period. The events that have taken place--the mass protest--during the past week have a direct bearing, not only in the Middle East area and its neighbors, but also in Africa and in the United States of America. The events in Cairo and Alexandria will affect this country politically, economically, diplomatically, and militarily.

Besides Israel, Egypt is the recipient of the largest amount of economic aid in the region, and it is a close ally of America in the fight against terrorism. However, it appears that the masses of the people there do not benefit from the close relationship ... only the few that are in power--the ruling class; the masses remain forgotten and untouched.

Strategically, Egypt is of vital importance to America for several reasons: it controls the Suez Canal, the super waterway that is critical to the flow of oil; it is a friend of the U.S. and of Israel; and it acts as a buffer against some of the other states in the region that is unfriendly and even hostile to the U.S.

In trying to analyze, interpret, and understand the events beyond the sound bite and the media's version ... what will the fall of Egypt mean to and fro Black America? The Los Angeles Sentinel reached out to some who may have intimate knowledge about the situation in Egypt.

Speaking to Hesham El Swify, who is as close as one can get to what's really happening without being there in person, was born and raised in Egypt and is now a businessman in America. He often travels back home (to Egypt). Last week, El Swify said, "I've been talking to Egypt all day long ... I've been talking to everybody." He added, "The situation now is that Mubarak must stay for now for one reason. If Mubarak leaves Egypt, civility--law and order--the whole area will go down (explode). Egypt has 80 million people. Hezbollah in Lebanon ... all the Shiites will know, it they get Egypt, the whole Muslim world will follow."

Getting an understanding from an individual who have lived most of his life there gives one a different perspective from what the overseas public gleans from the television, radio and/or internet. In the short term, "It is better for Mubarak to stay and restore order, put in a new government, and then he leaves," El Swify continued. "His term is over in November, so he needs to stay to restore order; and once he makes sure that everything in Egypt is safe, and there is a new government, then with dignity, he can leave ... no problem."

Former California Congresswoman Diane Watson knows a bit about the diplomatic and political challenges that Egypt in chaos represents. She has been a frequent visitor to Egypt and has spoken with President Mubarak and Mrs. Mubarak. She explained, "These bright young college students and all the others want a different life in their country, and that's what it's all about. The old dictatorial ways don't meet the challenge of the youth today. In fact, we were going to Egypt on April 11, and I had asked Nancy Wilson, if she would do a concert at the pyramids."

After pausing a while, Watson continued, "You know, the culture is there in Egypt and that's why the whole scene is so disturbing ... and particularly when mobs went into the museums and started to attack the antiquities ... how can we tell our history. We have to tell our history from what we have found. And, it takes the generation at present to deal with those and that's the idea of lifting people up to leadership; and we who have given leadership can go in to provide it in a different setting."

Imam Abdul Karim Hasan of Masjid Felix Bilal said emphatically, "I'm with the people ... I'm with the suppressed and the oppressed ... I'm with them. They are denied their basic freedom and their basic rights, and I think it's about time for them to have basic freedom and basic rights. So I'm with them. We had the same problem here in the United States ... so we appreciate our own struggle, we have to appreciate their struggle." In responding to the notion of a Million Man March, Hasan said, "they are calling for a million people; they want men and women in the streets."

Furthermore he added, "they are not ignorant to American history ... they are not ignorant to that anywhere in the world. They are talking about something that we've already struggled to acquire."

At press time, thousands of people marched in support of President Hosni Mubarak Wednesday morning (Egypt time) hours after he made a defiant speech promising to serve out the last months of his term and "die on Egyptian soil."

Meanwhile President Barack Obama is reportedly prodding the Egyptian president to quickly loosen his grip on power--as an ally speaking to an ally, who happens to be in a jam--at the same time, telling him that the time to transition from the presidency "must begin now."

Recent developments made clear the administration's determination that long-term backing for the Egyptian president was no longer tenable. The administration also appeared to be attempting to reach out to Mubarak's possible successor, Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a former Egyptian diplomat and chief of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog program. ElBaradei may be more amenable to a western-style change since he lived in the U.S. for about 15 years. There is also concern that any unknown successor who may come from an Islamist group or others might be hostile to Israel and unfriendly to U.S. interests. That is what's really at stake.

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