Skip to main content

Tavis Smiley: Why did justice on incarceration take so long?

By Tavis Smiley, Special to CNN
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Sun August 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tavis Smiley: I'm underwhelmed at Holder's decision to avert mandatory minimum sentences
  • What took so long? Such sentences have been a disaster from the beginning, he says
  • He says tough-on-crime laws made incarceration jump 800%; blacks, Hispanics bore brunt
  • Smiley: Why is U.S. no longer willing to do this? Not morals, sadly -- it just got too expensive

Editor's note: Tavis Smiley is host of the "Tavis Smiley" show on PBS, Public Radio International's "The Tavis Smiley Show" and "Tavis Talks" on BlogTalkRadio.

(CNN) -- "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

Why so long?

As I watched the announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder this past week in San Francisco -- that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders -- I kept asking myself: "Why so long?"

Pardon me if I am underwhelmed by the sudden turnaround, especially in light of the evidence having been overwhelming for the past 40 years that we have been on the wrong path. These mandatory minimums were a bad idea when they were first proposed. Not because I say so, but because the evidence leads to almost no other conclusion.

Tavis Smiley
Tavis Smiley

I came of age during America's crack epidemic and I have seen the results of this scourge on our society in my own family, where family members have suffered, their lives affected and dreams shattered. But putting them on lockdown because a judge had no discretion whatsoever was never the answer to any prayer. Not for my family, not for the millions whose "lives have been wasted due to the drug war and the types of police tactics that have been deployed in the get-tough-on-crime movement," as author and law professor Michelle Alexander noted.

As reported last week, amid the crack epidemic a generation ago, state and federal lawmakers had enacted a wave of tough crime measures that resulted in a nearly 800% increase in the number of prisoners in the United States, even as the population grew by only a third.

The result? An increase in the number of African-American and Hispanic men convicted of drug crimes, with black men about six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.

Fmr Bush AG on ending mandatory minimums
Holder: 'Vicious cycle' traps too many
Stop-and-frisk debate part 2
'Fuzzy' numbers behind 'stop-and-frisk'?

Or in the vernacular we used back in the day when fighting against these discriminatory laws, "Crack is used in the streets, cocaine in the suites." And yet, one had to get caught with 100 times more powder cocaine than crack to get the same sentence.

I call that racist. Even in the Obama era, although President Obama initially campaigned on a one-to-one ratio in this area of sentencing, what he signed into law in 2010 was 18-to-1. Better, but not nearly good enough.

The attorney general chose the right place to make his announcement. In California the impact these draconian laws have had on prison overcrowding and related issues is front page news almost daily. The once "Golden State" has been ordered to release nearly 10,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons by the end of the year to resolve a problem of "cruel and unusual punishment" that's been brewing for years due to, what else? You guessed it, an overly aggressive increase in sentencing.

So, with all of this data, why so long for this major shift on crime? The answers are plentiful but the motive may be singular.

I would like to believe that it's about a shift in our morals; that our nation has finally come to the conclusion that being the world's leader on lockdowns is neither socially sustainable nor a just way to treat fellow citizens. But, alas, I'm not that naive.

It's about money. Pure and simple. As a nation, we have a habit every bit as addictive as the habits of many of the folk we've locked away. We've been addicted to the drug of incarceration, and now we can no longer afford our expensive habit. Things are "breaking bad" for us too. Time for rehab.

Of course, like most addictions, this habit won't be easy to break. But let's hope this time around we get the help we need and come to our senses about how to better spend our dollars.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tavis Smiley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT