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US criticism of China rings hollow in US prisons

By Derrick Z. Jackson, Globe Columnist, 03/03/99

It will be interesting to see how long the White House can recite China's abuses when its own moral threads are unraveling to the point that it has become the schoolmarm scolding the world in exposed lingerie.

Last week the State Department issued a stinging report on human rights abuses in China. The report said, ''Abuses included instances of extrajudicial killings, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy incommunicado detention and denial of due process.

''Prison conditions at most facilities remained harsh. In many cases, particularly sensitive political cases, the judicial system denies criminal defendants basic legal safeguards and due process because authorities attach higher priority to maintaining public order and suppressing political opposition than to enforcing legal norms.''

To emphasize the point, President Clinton said last weekend in California, ''I believe, sooner or later, China will have to come to understand'' that it ''cannot purchase stability at the expense of freedom.'' He said this as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was off to China, where she lectured Chinese officials on human rights. Albright said, ''It is very important for China to be on the right side of history.''

It is increasingly difficult for the United States to demand that China be on the right side of history when you could take many parts of the State Department report about China, change only the location, and have the same report about the United States.

The United States knocks China's courts, but the United States has the world's highest level of incarceration in the developed world. The report complains that China does not openly recognize racism against ethnic minorities, yet nearly every serious study of the American criminal justice system has found that it profoundly discriminates against African-Americans and Latinos.

The latest example of this was Sunday's New York Times, which laid out (finally) the facts that allow one to conclude that the war on crack has been every bit as oppressive for black and brown people as the tanks rolling down Tiananmen Square. Filled with hysteria and absent of medical reasoning, Congress enacted laws in the 1980s that sent holders of 40 grams of crack cocaine to jail for 10 years while someone nailed with 400 grams of powdered cocaine could serve a year or less in jail.

Though federal statistics show that up to 62 percent of crack users are actually white, 90 percent of the people jailed under federal laws for crack are African-American. Though white Americans are 76 percent of the population and consume 75 percent of the illegal drugs in the United States, African-Americans and Latinos make up 79 percent of drug convictions in state courts from 1990 through 1996 and 71 percent of the drug convictions in federal courts.

This has not reduced drug use. Only 5 percent of federal crack arrests were for high-level dealers. Instead, the harsh laws ensnared the chumps of the trade and unwitting friends and family of dealers, sometimes resulting in five to 10 years for first-time offenses.

It was ironic that Clinton chose California to urge the Chinese government to open up its political system and not to ''limit the aspirations of its people.'' California is one of the nation's best examples of how the drug war has sucked aspiration out of the reach of the state's youth.

There are now five times more African-Americans in California jails and prisons than in the state's universities. Spending on prisons in California has grown over twice as fast as spending for the state's public schools and has skyrocketed while college spending has been cut. The cuts are so parallel with prison spending that there is little doubt of a direct shift in spending, even though it costs $22,000 a year to incarcerate someone in the state while it costs $4,000 a year for college. Prison guards now make more than university professors.

Clinton knows this. He knew that the crack laws were unjust from the start. He knows that vast numbers of the people being jailed for drugs are nonviolent offenders whom studies would say would more effectively reclaim their lives and the livelihoods of their families with education and other second chances.

But he and his cowering administration have been unwilling for six years to challenge the gulag mentality of the Republicans. Clinton has waited so long that he has handed the Chinese government the spoon to feed him his own medicine. When the State Department released its report last week, Chinese officials wasted no time in firing back, in effect, ''yes, and what about your prisons, your black people dying at the hands of the police, your widening gap between rich and poor and 41 million people going without health insurance?''

Clinton has waited so long that each complaint about China only begs a harder look at home. He criticizes China for lack of due process. He cannot say anything until he moves to end the undue process of the crack laws and the undue procession of black men from hope into jail.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 03/03/99.

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