Unfinished Business

A Coalition of Celebrities and Civil Rights Activists Fight Against Mass Incarceration

By Monica We, a Spring 2013 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

On April 9, the civil rights community embraced a formidable coalition of more than 175 entertainers, athletes, elected officials and other notable figures who organized a rallying cry against mass incarceration and the War on Drugs in favor of prevention and rehabilitation. In a letter to President Obama spearheaded by hip-hop legend Russell Simmons, the coalition thanked his administration for directing more funds toward drug prevention  and  local re-entry grants and made recommendations for combating the problems that drive the vicious cycle of “incarceration, broken families, juvenile delinquency, violence and poverty.”

In a press statement, the Drug Policy Alliance said the coalition is urging President Obama to “extend the Fair Sentencing Act to all inmates who were sentenced under the 100-to-1 crack/powder disparity, support the principles of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (which allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate), and supporting the Youth PROMISE Act” (Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education Act), which confronts violence and gang intervention and prevention work.

Statistics show that almost half of the prison population is made up of drug offenders. According to The Sentencing Project, of those incarcerated for drugs, two thirds are Blacks and other minoritieseven though rates of drug use are comparable among racial groups. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, one in nine Black children have at least one incarcerated parent while one in 57 White children find themselves in that situation. These children not only suffer from the absence of their parent(s) at a basic human needs level, they are also at a higher risk of eventually falling into the juvenile delinquency or criminal justice system.

Over the past forty years, the War on Drugs has not decreased the rate of drug offenses in this country, according to Robert Rooks, director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program.  Although the drug wars affects a many different communities, law enforcement particularly targets and criminalizes the Black community. This prevalence of racial discrimination as well as the broader ineffectiveness of current drug policies is why the coalition appealed to the president to take action.

Included among the members of the coalition are: Russell Simmons, Dr. Boyce Watkins, Sir Richard Branson, Will Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Scarlett Johansson, Ron Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Demi Moore, Eva Longoria, Michael Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Harry Belafonte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cameron Diaz, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Chris Rock, Russell Brand, John Legend, DJ Pauly D, Mike Tyson, Rick Ross, Jon Hamm, Natalie Maines, Ludacris.