A New Jim Crow?

Article excerpt

Byline: Ellis Cose

The tragedy of America's jails.

In certain quarters, euphoria greeted Barack Obama's inauguration. Finally America had its post-partisan prince, an elegant figure, full of hope, who would redefine Washington and reclaim America's promise. A year later, Obama's pledge to rein in well-heeled power players lies in shambles--with a strong assist from a Supreme Court inclined to let big money have its say. And post-partisanship seems similarly out of reach, particularly for this president, whose vision most Republicans don't share and whose approval numbers, says Gallup, are the most politically polarized of any first-year president.

No mortal, of course, could have transformed American society in one year--especially with the U.S. economy weathering its worst crisis in nearly a century. It was inevitable that Obama would scale back his ambitions for health-care reform and focus more on propping up banks than on creating new green jobs. Now is probably not the best time to suggest another big--and potentially unpopular--policy battle. Yet, I still find myself wishing that Obama could throw the full weight of his office behind one of the most unacknowledged, and yet most important, issues of this era: repairing the American system of justice.

In a Parade magazine article last year, Sen. James Webb noted that the United States houses one fourth of the world's prisoners. "With so many of our citizens in prison -- there are only two possibilities," he observed. "Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something -- vastly counterproductive." Webb, a former Marine, is pushing to establish a blue-ribbon commission to look into reforming the system--the first such body since 1965, when America had one seventh the current number of prisoners.

Webb once defended a former Marine unjustly convicted of murder in Vietnam. The man took his own life. "I cleared his name three years later," said Webb, "but having become painfully aware of how sometimes inequities infect our process." Those, unfortunately, include racial inequities. Even allowing for differences in crimes among various groups, blacks and Latinos are disproportionately carted off to prison. They make up two thirds of those jailed for drug offenses, even though drug abuse does not differ greatly across races. …