At one time he was known as Tim Jefferson (name has been changed), the youngest child of a black middle-class family. A 34-year-old college graduate who studied mortuary science, he was employed as a licensed mortician. He would quip: "It's not the dead people I need to worry about, and at least I know I'll always have a job."
Today he is inmate No. 51012, a convicted felon at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, California.
During his college years in Atlanta, Georgia, Jefferson dabbled in drug peddling while living with a brother-in-law who also sold drugs. He was arrested six years later, when prosecutors called him back to Atlanta to testify against 13 others who had been charged with drug trafficking and found him guilty of conspiracy. Jefferson ended up taking a plea bargain that landed him with six and a half years in prison and a permanent felony on his record for a first offense that he had thought would get him probation.
"It seemed like the right thing to do at the time [to take the plea]," says Jefferson in retrospect. "My attorney was the one that hyped me up about this [plea bargain] shit. The feds said that if I didn't cop a plea that I would get about 15 [years]. I worked, had my degree, took care of my family, and they still gave me the max."
In the United States, more than 90 percent of all cases in the justice system are settled by plea bargaining rather than exercising the right to trial. The rate of felony convictions of nonviolent crimes in communities of color is over-whelming: African Americans constitute 13 percent of all drug users, yet they represent 35 percent of arrests, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences, according to a 2000 study by the Sentencing Project.
These two factors mean that the widespread practice of plea bargaining--where prosecutors overcharge for a crime and defense attorneys usually urge defendants to cop a plea for a lighter sentence--has increased repercussions for people of color who end up literally signing away their lives on the dotted line. Defendants are seldom informed about the underlying effects of pleading to a felony--such as losing their right to vote, access to federal student aid, and if they are noncitizens, being deported.
One in four black men have permanently lost the right to vote in seven states. All told, 14 states restrict criminal offenders from voting, and more than 1.4 million black men nationwide cannot vote, according to Human Rights Watch. Some observers argue that if felons had been able to vote in Florida, with its more than 600,000 convicted felons, Bush would have lost the 2000 election.
The racial disproportion in sentencing prompted the Constitutional Rights Foundation to call for a ban on plea-bargaining, in a recent report commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board. The report cited a U.S. Sentencing Commission study in 1990 finding that 25 percent of whites get their sentences reduced through bargaining, compared to 18 percent of blacks and 12 percent of Latinos.
In 1991 the San Jose Mercury News conducted a massive study of 700,000 California legal cases over a 10-year period. The paper reported that "a third of the white adults who were arrested, but had no prior record, were able to get felony charges against them reduced. Only a quarter of the African-Americans and Latinos with no priors were as successful in plea bargaining."
June Terpstra, a criminal justice scholar at Loyola University Chicago, emphasizes that drug laws play a …