FRIDAY, MARCH 30: Locking up young people for minor drugs offences will breed a new generation of criminals, a top US civil rights lawyer will tell Bermudians at a conference this weekend.
Dr Michelle Alexander said that the failed US war on drugs had led to increased penalties and jails overflowing with people locked up for minor offences — particularly young black men.
She said decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs turned a crime into a public health issue — and would not brand young people as criminals for life.
She added: “What I want to share with people in Bermuda is the importance of not following the US example and having a much more caring, constructive and compassionate way of dealing with people, rather than locking them up and throwing away the key.”
Dr Alexander said that ‘get tough’ policies were attractive to many and held out an illusion of quick results.
But she added: “In the long run, this is counter-productive, increases racial divisions and extends racial inequalities which exist in our societies.
“Other countries have developed alternatives to incarceration for drug offences and decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs turns it from a crime into a public health problem.”
Dr Alexander, a former associate professor of law at the prestigious Stanford University in California, is the keynote speaker at a weekend conference organised by Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda.
She now holds a joint appointment at Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law, where she teachers on race, civil rights and criminal justice.
Dr Alexander said the best way to combat crime was prevention — by providing economic opportunity and good education.
She added: “It’s no secret that people who are desperately poor and marginalized and locked out of economic opportunities which might make it possible to support themselves and their families are more likely to commit crimes than people with access to good jobs and schools.
“The places that have these benefits are the safest communities, irrespective of the racial make-up of these communities.”
She added: “In the States, the experience has been that young black men are often viewed as suspects, regardless of whether they are doing anything wrong or not.
“Stop and search tactics target these young men and often results in them being arrested for the types of crime which occur among young white people as well, but young whites don’t get the same attention from the authorities.
“Marijuana is effectively legal in the States if you are relatively wealthy and white, but if you are a young black man the chances are you will be stopped, searched and criminalized.”
Dr Alexander said: “Once you’re sent to prison, you really are marked and that’s become a vicious cycle in the US. It follows them for the rest of their lives and makes it more difficult to find housing and employment when they do get out.”
She added: “The most important step is preventing predictable sorts of crimes and means quality job opportunities and quality education.
“One of the common mistakes which is made is that crime prevention is about punishment, whereas crime prevention is about providing meaningful opportunities to people irrespective of colour.
“When young people in particular make mistakes, finding alternatives to incarceration is crucial, especially when it comes to drugs possession.”
The conference, to be held at the Southampton Princess, starts today with workshops on the most effective mediation techniques and structural racism in the criminal justice system.
The main conference will run from 8.30am to 5pm on Saturday, with participation from police, the prison service and the legal profession, as well as social agencies.
More information at www.uprootingracism.org and anyone who wants to attend can also call CURB on 542-2872.