On Sunday, we embarked on a journey with Eugene Thomas for Red Ribbon Week.
He started as a youth right here in Columbus with aspirations to play sports. Yet by seventh grade, he was a middle school dropout hustling on the streets of Columbus. He eventually became a crack dealer, which led to 21 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. On Tuesday, we’ll take a closer look at how gangs developed in Columbus from Thomas’ perspective as a former gang member.
Thomas is now back in the community building a new life as an ex-felon. But his story highlights a serious problem in our society pertaining to a criminal justice system that has too many black men locked behind bars.
Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice show that while people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned, and that one in every 15 African-American men and one in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to one in every 106 white men.
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Amnesty International has expressed ongoing concern about the high U.S. incarceration rate, predicting that one in three black men in the United States will go to prison or jail if current trends continue. More than 2 million people are already behind bars nationwide, and about 5 million people are under state or federal supervision in the form of probation or parole.
Some people argue that the current crisis is indicative of a breakdown of the black family, and that the high incarceration rate reflects the need for more fathers in the home. I believe that’s a big part of the problem, but there are also other factors to consider.
Many scholars point to mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws that evolved in the 1980s as part of the “war on drugs.” Michelle Alexander makes that argument in her New York Times bestseller, “The New Jim Crow,” in which she describes how the loss of manufacturing jobs and other employment opportunities disappeared from inner cities in the 1980s. At the same time, the crack epidemic hit, and the United States responded by focusing on incarceration instead of treatment and prevention.
In September of 1986, the U.S. House of Representatives allocated $2 billion to the war on drugs, allowing the death penalty for some drug-related crimes.
“Later that month, the Senate proposed even tougher anti-drug legislation, and shortly thereafter the president (Reagan) signed the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 into law,” Alexander wrote. “Among other harsh penalties, the legislation included minimum mandatory sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for distribution of crack — associated with blacks — than powder cocaine, associated with whites.”
Law enforcement budgets exploded, she said, along with jails and the prison population. As early as 1991, the Sentencing Project concluded that the number of “people behind bars in the United States was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of young African American men were now under control of the criminal justice system.”
Many civil rights activists also believe there’s a school to prison pipeline that has funneled black youths into prison for profit through zero tolerance disciplinary policies and police in schools.
J. Aleem Hud is director of Project Rebound, a youth empowerment program, where Thomas goes for support and mentoring. Hud said he remembers when the Columbus black community still had strong institutions such as family, church and benevolent societies to help usher boys into manhood.
But changes in society over the past 50 years — such as the decimation of the close-knit black community, the loss of industrial jobs in many neighborhoods and drug laws that disproportionately affect the black community — have left many black young men displaced and on the fringes of society.
“Through incarceration, through law enforcement, we see what’s going on today with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “With men being taken out of the family, that means that boys would begin to be raised by boys in the streets, to a great extent. So that means the moral fabric that held us together for many years was lost, and our young men are growing up in a crime culture.”
Thomas went to prison for voluntary manslaughter and not a drug crime, but it was his career path and environment — he was a crack dealer in a crime-infested neighborhood — that guided him toward tragic circumstances. He was only 22 when he went to prison for 21 years.
To be sure, there are many young black males who transition well into American society and go on to live productive lives. But for some, such as Thomas, the path can be a meandering maze of trial and error, many times with devastating results. The destination for far too many is a life of crime and incarceration.
That raises a lot of questions that I hope we’ll ponder this week.
For more on Thomas’ story, go to http://bit.ly/2dPBQq2
This year, in observation of Red Ribbon Week, the Ledger-Enquirer focuses on the story of Columbus native Eugene Thomas.
▪ Sunday: How Eugene Thomas went from curious child to drug dealer.
▪ Today: A closer look at mandatory drug sentencing laws.
▪ Tuesday: A closer look at gangs and gang activity.
▪ Wednesday: What Eugene Thomas learned in prison.
▪ Thursday: How Eugene Thomas is coping as an ex-con.
▪ Friday: A look at what has changed and what remains the same.