By Melvina C. Ford, Executive Director

Ninety years after the first celebration of Black History Month in 1926, the historic, unfair and unlawful relationship between race and criminality remains one of our nation’s largest challenges.

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.  I know some would seek to explain this away in ways that I would rather not repeat here, but the truth is that African Americans are no more likely to engage in criminal behavior than our White counterparts.  In fact, five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.

Much of this is likely a legacy of the 80’s war on drugs. Prior to the 2010 passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 made punishment for crack possession 100 times harsher than powder cocaine possession.  According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in 1993, 88.3 percent of convicted crack offenders were black, while 58 percent of convicted powder cocaine possessions were white—a conspicuous racial result.

These original racial disparities are further compounded by the fact that the criminal records at issue continue to follow people long after they’ve served their time and, per usual, they tend to have a far harsher impact on African Americans.  Take employment as an example.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 60-75 percent of formerly incarcerated persons do not find work within their first year of release.  Studies further suggest that African Americans with a criminal record are twice as likely to be penalized when searching for a job than Whites.

In November, President Obama announced a series of initiatives designed to promote rehabilitation and reintegration for the formerly-incarcerated, including highlighting measures to #BantheBox, allowing applicants with criminal records to apply for and be considered for jobs prior to disclosing their record. This was a significant step in the direction of common sense criminal justice reform and will help address the double penalty faced by African Americans in their search for gainful employment.

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