California Task Force Recommends Apology, Drug War Reparations for Black Americans

A California task force voted on Saturday to officially recommend a series of proposals to compensate and apologize to Black residents for generations of harm caused by discriminatory policy and the War on Drugs.

The nine-member committee first convened almost two years ago and gave their final approval to a lengthy list of proposals in Oakland, California over the weekend, which will now head to the governor and legislature to consider. 

The draft final report notes that federal and state governments have long targeted Black people with “discriminatory arrest and incarceration,” and the scope of this unjust policing was only exacerbated when the War on Drugs began in 1971 under the Nixon Administration. 

“Reparations are not only morally justifiable, but they have the potential to address long standing racial disparities and inequalities,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, at the meeting. 

The first vote approved a detailed account of historical discrimination against Black Californians, specially examining areas like voting, housing, education, disproportionate policing and incarceration, among other topics.

In addition to reparation recommendations, the task force also approved a public apology that acknowledges the state’s responsibility for past wrongs and promises the state will not repeat them. The apology would be issued in the presence of people with ancestors who were enslaved.

“An apology and an admission of wrongdoing just by itself is not going to be satisfactory,” said Chris Lodgson, a Coalition for a Just and Equitable California organizer.

Members quantified the impact of racially discriminatory enforcement and incarceration over drugs by incorporating analysis on the cost of time spent in prison with other collateral consequences relating to drug convictions. They assessed racial discrimination based on comparisons of average arrest rates, convictions and sentencing between Black and white people who engaged in drug-related activity at comparable rates who experienced disparate consequences in the criminal legal system.

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),” according to the report.

Members also recommended that the Legislature enact an “individual claims process” to compensate people who can prove “particular injuries,” like an individual who was arrested or incarcerated for a drug charge in the past, especially if the drug is now considered legal, as cannabis is in many states.

The panel specifically concluded that the legislature should pay an estimated 1,976,911 Black Californians $115,260 in 2020 dollars, reflecting a total of $2,352 per person for “each year of residency in California during the 49-year period between 1971 and 2020,” or a total of $227,858,891.023 in reparations for all affected, according to Marijuana Moment.

“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,” the report states. “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.”

The report notes that the drug war resulted in “massively disproportionate incarceration of African Americans,” additionally contributing to unemployment and homelessness in economically depressed African American communities once incarcerated individuals were released. The panel is also proposing additional compensation for health disparities and housing discrimination.

It also points out the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine enacted by Congress during the Reagan administration, specifically citing it as one example of drug policy being authored in a way that disproportionately impacted Black communities.

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

Members will convene once more on June 29 before submitting the final report to the legislature.

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