Editor's Note: Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which advocates for the rights of all persons and for an end to racial hatred and discrimination.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and wife Lia Epperson Jealous at the Image Awards in February.
(ESSENCE) -- My 3-year-old daughter scampers into my lap. "You are a silly goose ball, Daddy," she says laughing, delighted with her characterization of her father, who she thinks is a president just like Obama .
When I explain to her that he is the big president and I am a little president, she gazes up at my 6-foot, 4-inch frame and says, "You aren't little, Daddy , you are a big president, too."
The love I hold for my precocious daughter defies words. I already know that when my baby starts dating, no man will be good enough for her. I'm not one of those dads who will hold her to some racially imposed requirement. I want her to choose whoever makes her happy, complements her soul, and respects her dignity as a woman. If that person happens not to be black, so be it.
But I do want her to have a choice of African-American men. The disproportionate number of black men swept into the prison system threatens that hope. Watch concern about marriage, apology for slavery »
According to The Sentencing Project, one in three black men born today can expect to go to prison, if the current trend continues. It goes without saying that we have to take responsibility for instilling values in our children that will help them stay out of the criminal justice system.
It's a fact that the majority of young African-American men are not in jail, and millions are in college or working. Still, on any given day, one in every ten black men between ages 25 and 29 is incarcerated. And while black men remain disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system, black women are one of the fastest growing prison populations. Much of this growth has come as a result of nonviolent drug offenses.
Kemba Smith's now-familiar story is typical. She fell in the wrong crowd at school and got drawn into an abusive relationship with a drug dealer. Eventually, after enduring the relationship for four years, she was indicted and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. She was sentenced to 24½ years behind bars with no parole.
Kemba served nearly seven years in a federal prison, gave birth to her son in jail, and only regained her freedom after former President Clinton granted her clemency following a worldwide outcry over her case. While Kemba is free today, raising her son, writing and advocating for other young women, her story is not unusual.
One of every 100 African-American women 35 to 39 is in prison or jail, compared with 1 in 358 white women of that same age group. As more young black mothers get caught up in this dragnet of incarceration, many of their children are doomed to a foster care system that may bounce them from home to home, then kick them out at 18 to fend for themselves.
Changing this paradigm is our moral responsibility and it's fiscally smart. It is cheaper to send nonviolent drug offenders to a drug treatment facility where they can get help than send them to prison. This is a perfect storm for change, a rare confluence of moral imperative and fiscal necessity. The economic and political shifts in our country have opened the door to advance policies that we thought would take decades to push through.
President Obama has already indicated his support for eliminating the crack and cocaine sentencing disparity that metes out mandatory prison time to poor black people while letting whites go with a slap on the wrist for basically the same offenses. We triumphed this year in overturning the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in New York, which for 35 years forced long mandatory prison terms on first-time nonviolent drug offenders, most of them blacks and Latinos.
This month we are celebrating our Centennial Convention in New York, our birthplace. Like the dreams of the past that many insisted were beyond reach, the struggle to right our nation's criminal justice wrongs is a bold vision. For the sake of our sons and daughters in the next 100 years, we cannot rest until this dream is embraced and won.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Benjamin Todd Jealous.
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