Dr. Artika Tyner
Director of Diversity
Community Justice Project: Clinical Law Faculty
On February 13th, the University of St. Thomas School of Law Black Law Student Association, Multicultural Affairs Committee, and Office of Diversity sponsored a CLE program titled: “American Violet: A Dialogue on the Intersection of the War on Drugs, Federal Sentencing Policies, and Race.”
We were pleased to have a wonderful turn out as community members, high school students, law students, and faculty came out in support and to learn about the issues surrounding race and sentencing for drug convictions. We began by watching the film American Violet, which is based on the true story of a police raid in Hearne, TX in 2000.
The film follows a young Black woman named Dee Roberts, on her journey to clear her name after she is indicted for drugs based one person’s uncorroborated testimony, despite the fact that no drugs were found in her apartment or on her person. The drug charges against Dee are eventually dropped, however she is also approached by an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union who wants her to be the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the people who were responsible for her arrest, in particular, the District Attorney. The film continues with Dee’s internal battle against what she feels is easiest (dropping the civil rights lawsuit) and what she feels is right (fighting for justice). Dee decides to pursue the lawsuit and the film ends with the case settling out of court in Dee’s favor, with the dismantling of the drug task force that arrested her in the first place and winning fight against the oppressive nature of the criminal justice system.
After the film, Professors Mark Osler and Nekima Levy-Pounds led a panel discussion on their scholarly research and professional experiences with the disparate impact of War on Drugs and Federal Sentencing Policies on African American people. Professor Osler was actually portrayed in the film as the professor at Baylor Law School who recommended a former student of his, a resident of Hearne, to assist the ACLU with this case.
Professors Osler and Levy-Pounds spoke about the disparate impact that mandatory minimum sentences have on African Americans, specifically in relation to crack cocaine offenses. They explained how, in 1986, the War on Drugs gave an incentive for prosecuting low-level crack cocaine dealers because of the 100-to-1 ratio between the amount of powder and crack cocaine needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. However, these low-level dealers are also easily replaceable, so little progress was made to end the War on Drugs. This resulted in mass incarcerations for small crack cocaine possessions. In 2010, the ratio was reduced to 18-to-1. However, both professors explained that this change is not enough because those who were sentenced under the prior law are still serving longer sentences than they would be had they been sentenced under the current law.
Members of the community voiced their concerns with the impact the War on Drugs has had on their neighborhoods, and engaged in a healthy discussion about the need to eliminate the racial and gender bias in sentencing policies.
Professors Osler and Levy-Pounds then discussed their current engagements for policy reform in the areas of federal sentencing and the War on Drugs, and calling for a resurgence of the civil rights movement. While things are improving, we are still at a crossroads because these policies continue to have a disparate impact on poor communities of color. American Violet teaches that there is still a need to advocate for civil rights; though the fight for fair sentencing policies may not be easy, it is a fight that Osler and Levy-Pounds are actively pursuing.