California Task Force Recommends $228 Billion In Drug War Reparations For Black Americans

A California task force is officially recommending that the legislature pass reparations legislation to compensate about two million Black Americans with a total of nearly $228 billion for racially disproportionate harms that resulted from the war on drugs in the state over the course of a half-century.

The nine-member California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans—which was convened by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in 2020 and released an interim report last year—voted on Saturday to submit its finalized recommendations to the governor and legislature.

One chapter of the extensive draft final report, which looked at the history of racial discrimination affecting Black Californians from a variety of angles, focused on mass incarceration and the impact of the drug war.

The task force “recommends that compensation for community harms be provided as uniform payments based on an eligible recipient’s duration of residence in California during the defined period of harm (e.g., residence in an over-policed community during the ‘War on Drugs’ from 1971 to 2020),” the report says.

Further, members recommended that “the Legislature enact an individual claims process to compensate individuals who can prove particular injuries, for example, an individual who was arrested or incarcerated for a drug charge during the war on drugs, especially if the drug is now considered legal,” as is the case with marijuana.

“Though federal and state governments have long targeted African Americans for discriminatory arrest and incarceration, the scope of such unjust policing leapt exponentially when the ‘War on Drugs’ began in 1971” under the Nixon administration, the report says.

Members explained how they quantified the impact of racially discriminatory enforcement and incarceration over drugs, incorporating analysis on the cost of time spent in prison and other collateral consequences related to drug convictions.

Racial discrimination was assessed based on comparisons of average arrest rates, convictions and sentences between Black people and white counterparts who engaged in certain drug-related activity at comparable rates but have experienced disparate consequences in the criminal legal system.

When it comes to the drug war reparations, the panel concluded that the legislature should pay an estimated 1,976,911 Black Californians $115,260 in 2020 dollars. That reflects a total of $2,352 per person for “each year of residency in California during the 49-year period between 1971 and 2020. That amounts to a total of $227,858,891,023 in reparations for all affected persons.

“To measure racial mass incarceration disparities in the 49 years of the war on drugs from 1971 to 2020, the Task Force’s experts estimated the disproportionate years spent behind bars for African American non-Hispanic Californian drug offenders compared to white non-Hispanic drug offenders. Since these disparities are measurable in years, the experts attached a monetary value to these disproportionate years spent in prison by calculating what an average California State employee would have earned in a year.”

“African American residents in California who were incarcerated for the possession or distribution of substances now legal, such as cannabis, should additionally be able to seek particular compensation for their period of incarceration, as discussed above,” the members said.

While the drug war resulted in “massively disproportionate incarceration of African Americans,” it also contributed to “unemployment and houselessness in many economically depressed African American communities once incarcerated African Americans were eventually released,” the report says.

It also highlights the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine that were enacted by Congress during the Reagan administration as an example of how drug policies were crafted in a way that has a disparate impact on black communities.

“Given the similarity between African Americans and white Americans in the number of drug offenses they actually participate in (drug possession and drug selling), racial disparities in drug enforcement should be non-existent,” the task force said. But as the record shows, those disparities have been profound.

The task force additionally made recommendations to reinstate affirmative action, abolish the death penalty, restore voting rights for formerly and currently incarcerated people, provide free college tuition to people who qualify for reparations under the proposal, eliminate cash bail, provide universal single-payer healthcare and more.

Beyond the drug war-era payments, the panel is also proposing additional compensation for health disparities and housing discrimination.

Members will meet one last time on June 29 before submitting the final report to the legislature. Sen. Steven Bradford (D) and Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D) sit on the task force and are expected to advocate for legislation to achieve the report’s goals.

On the other side of the country in Washington, D.C., lawmakers filed marijuana sales legislation earlier this year that includes reparations provisions to provide direct payments to people who have been harmed by cannabis criminalization.

When he was running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) proposed a federal marijuana legalization plan that called for drug war reparations, funded by cannabis tax dollars.

Back in California, officials announced in February that they awarded $15 million in grants to support local efforts to promote equity in the marijuana industry.

The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) distributed the funds to 16 cities and counties across the state through the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions. Applications opened for the program late last year.

GO-Biz separately distributed a round of community reinvestment grants last year totaling $35.5 million with tax revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales.

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