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Ohio Needs Sentencing Reform

If you're arrested for drugs in Cuyahoga County, you're much more likely to escape a felony conviction if you're white than if you're black. That was the bottom line from a couple of stories carried by the Cleveland Plain Dealer last October.

Even when all the relevant facts are similar, white defendants get to enter treatment programs more often, plea their charges down to misdemeanors more often, and - here's the key - are MUCH more likely to escape the legal encounter without the life-wrecking scar of a felony conviction.

The Plain Dealer's findings are perfectly consistent with numerous others from across our state and our country. From the heavy police presence you find in many minority communities, to the targeting of black and Latino drivers in police stops and searches, to arrests and sentencing - in all of these areas the discretion given to police officers, prosecutors, judges, and probation officers plays a huge role in how things turn out. African Americans and Latinos are especially likely to suffer the consequences.

Unfortunately, the feedback from people who read the Plain Dealer articles was also pretty typical.

It's a class thing, not a race thing, insisted some. Don't do drugs and you won't have to worry about it, said others. Some readers just railed at the messenger: The Plain Dealer, one person wrote, "belongs in the grocery store check-out area with the other journalistic trash."

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it IS true that our criminal justice system treats whites and blacks differently. Very differently. What would it take to make you question the disproportionate presence of blacks in prison on drug charges?

Let's say you knew that young whites were as likely as young African Americans to use illegal drugs? What if white youth were actually MORE likely to sell illegal drugs, but much less likely to be arrested or imprisoned? Suppose you learned that we imprison a larger percentage of our black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid? Suppose you learned that blackness is so associated with criminality that we're LITERALLY more likely to SEE someone as black if we know they've been in prison?

All of those statements are true.

Now, "What would it take to convince you?" isn't just an idle curiosity question. To get the kinds of changes our justice system needs, ordinary people like us have to recognize that it is deeply unjust; care enough to do something about it; and push our officials to take thoughtful, decisive action.

As it is, being quote-unquote "tough on crime" pays off for political candidates. Acknowledging the racial wrongs our justice system hangs on does not. The conservative Democratic Senator from Virgina, Jim Webb, is pretty much alone among national political leaders to publicly criticize our complete fiasco of a drug war, the role of race in its prosecution, and the mass incarceration that's been its main outcome.

Folks, it's up to each and every one of us to get informed and to demand sensible change from our leaders. So, again, I'm asking: What would it take to convince you?