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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT