Where's the Plan to Get Young Black Men Out of Jail?

The polls and the financial disclosures have spoken and declared Hillary Clinton is unbeatable in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. She is pulling away, widening her lead. Agence France-Press reported that she had "opened a chasm" in the race for the nomination.

So clearly the only thing left is for the voters to ratify the choice of the donors, the pollsters and the analysts.

It should be noted, however, that voters, when they actually have to get up, get dressed, and go out into the cold to vote, can often be just a little contrary to the conventional wisdom.

Still, John Edwards must have a good grasp of the hard reality of Hillary's inevitability, and has to know that his chances of winning the nomination are on par with those of Britney winning Mother of the Year.

So it is curious to me that he is increasingly serious, confronting the issues and acting less like a man who has nothing to lose and more like somebody who has something to say.

His recent jeremiad about the impending extinction of young black males in America was striking because it marked him as a man who has found his voice, who has stopped posturing and no longer afraid of the sniper fire.

Asked what he would do to curb youth violence in the inner city, Edwards produced an instant YouTube moment. "We start with the President of the United States saying to America we cannot build enough prisons to solve this problem and the idea that we're just going to keep incarcerating, keep incarcerating, pretty soon we're not going to have a young African-American male population in America. They're all going to be in prison or dead, one of the two."

He did not answer the question, but he did go to the heart of the matter of something worth talking about in a presidential campaign. And for Edwards it may mark him as bolder brand of Democrat than has so far been on exhibit in the presidential campaign.

Black men in prison are not a natural political constituency for anyone. The only thing less helpful than talking about poor people is talking about poor people with criminal records.

Except, of course, if you recognize the deep and lasting harm that has been inflicted on black and Latino communities all across the country over the last 30 years.

This week the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether federal judges really do have the discretion to ignore federal sentencing guidelines which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of people spending long stretches in prison for non-violent drug crimes.

The question before the courts is: "What does it mean if the guidelines are "advisory?" Current guidelines, as enacted by Congress, say that someone convicted of crack possession ought to be treated the same as someone caught with 100 times more powder cocaine.

So even as crack was ravaging poor neighborhoods with crime and sickness, the harsh sentencing guidelines were, at the same time, emptying those neighborhoods of young men and women who were being sent to jail for much longer periods than if they had been caught with the same amount of powder cocaine. The result is that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 750 inmates for every 100,000 people, and guess who makes up most of the 750.

"The racial dimension of incarceration is inescapable," says New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney. "Half of our prison population is African American, yet they represent just 13 percent of the population as a whole."

Maloney said this on Thursday at a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee, made up of members of both the House and Senate. Maybe the most remarkable feature of that hearing was that it was happening at all. Maloney is the vice-chair of that committee that is chair by her senior senator, Chuck Schumer.

But the event was largely the work of Virginia freshman senator, Jim Webb, who talked, ex cathedra, about incarceration during his campaign and made it one of the centerpieces of a speech at the National Press Club last spring. As I noted then, this is the junior senator from Virginia, where tough on crime means something. (Virginia, since enacting the death penalty in 1976, has executed more people than any other state except Texas.) So it's hard to see the political up side for Webb.

"Although African Americans are 14 percent of drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug offenses," Webb said. "…We have reached a point where the principal nexus between young African American men and our society is increasingly the criminal justice system." At the hearing, which was titled "Mass Incarceration in the United States: At what Cost?", Webb also noted that prisoners represent lost productivity and that the "tough on crime" thinking that has driven policy-making for a generation has abandoned the idea of rehabilitation, and has imposed "invisible punishments" on former inmates, including the denial of government benefits like housing and student loans. "It is no longer possible to pay one debt to society," he said.

So maybe John Edwards is onto something when he worries out loud that, "...we're not going to have a young African-American male population in America."

There is a component of the Democratic primary campaign that is hinged to the idea that 2008 will be about President Bush and Iraq, and there is little need to talk about anything beyond his failings. I know everyone has a health care plan and an education plan and a plan rescue the Man in the Moon.

Maybe before it's all over someone will have a get-black-men-out-of-jail-who-don't-belong-there plan.

Oh, I forgot; the primary is already over.

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