Kurt Donley remembers being mortified after reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.
Are black men being taken off the voter rolls in record numbers? Is the war on drugs the root of the problem?
The more research he did, “the more upsetting it was,” he said.
On Monday night, at the Studio@620, Donley, who chairs the Council of Neighborhoods Associations’ public safety committee, made a brief presentation to a few dozen citizens about the book and what he sees as a major problem not only in St. Petersburg but throughout the U.S.
“Almost one out of 4 of every black persons you meet in St. Pete can’t vote,” Donley said because of the war on drugs.
According to marijuana arrest numbers provided to Donley by the St. Petersburg Police, nearly 6,300 people have been arrested in St. Pete since 2008 for a charge relating to marijuana.
Of those nearly 6,300 arrests, more than 90 percent were for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana.
In the “The New Jim Crow,” Alexander argues that crime rates and arrest rates have always moved independently of one another.
Instead of just serving time for the crime, convicted individuals are not allowed to vote after their release. According Donley, and results from a newly released survey from StPetePolls, that is unfair.
StPetePolls asked respondents last week if they believed felons who have paid their debt to society should have the right to vote.
More than 73 percent of respondents said yes.
On Monday, public officials also spoke up in favor of coming up with solutions to disenfranchisement due to the war on drugs.
Pinellas County Sheriff candidate Scott Swope spoke of the benefits of decriminalizing marijuana.
“Prior to 1996 there were no states in the US that had any kind of marijuana decriminalization,” Swope said “Sixteen states and D.C. have it now.”
In Florida, Swope said if you have a marijuana conviction on your record you can’t get a student loan, can’t adopt a child later in life, can’t get food stamps, can’t live in pubic housing and have limited opportunities to vote.
“A truck driver arrested for possession of marijuana, now he’s out of work for year,” Swope said. “So we just took a $150 fine and turned it into a $40,000 fine. The law is replete with those kind of ancillary damages. I think the time has come for people to start talking about having a more reasonable and fiscally responsible marijuana enforcement policies.
“The County Commission just voted to raise our tax rate by 5 percent to cover expenses,” Swope added. “So now we’re going have to pay more money on our properties, at the same time we’re spending huge amounts of money on marijuana enforcement. Jailing these people, we have to feed them, clothe them. In jail you have to provide healthcare and dental care.”
Pinellas County School Board member Glen Gilzean and St. Pete City Council member Karl Nurse also voiced their concerns.
For Gilzean, increasing education and preventing people from making decisions that lead to arrests in the first place could stop the affects of the laws.
“How do we avoid this situation,” he asked. “How do we get younger people not to make those decisions, how not to make those mistakes.”
He said for people that have made mistakes and paid their time, city and county governments can play a role in getting those individuals back on his or her own feet. Gilzean said the city could hire former felons to do maintenance or lawn work.
“At the end of the day, if they can’t support themselves,” they will end up in the same place, Gilzean said. “How do we come up with policies that make sense.”
Nurse, who represents nearly half of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Pete, said the current laws handicap those individuals from every getting ahead in life and standing on their own two feet.
The city, Nurse said, also needs to focus on the drug dealers and not marijuana possessions.
“What happens is, because you’re working on things like marijuana possession, you don’t have time to do the real stuff,” Nurse said. “I look at the arrests every week and ask, don’t we ever arrests the big dogs? And the answer is ‘no we don’t.’”
Nurse said the shift in priorities for the St. Petersburg Police Department is unlikely.
“The police department will resist this,” Nurse said. “… it is outside their comfort zone. If we are going to make a change, it’s going to require these types of seminars.
Donley said it is important for citizens to speak up in great numbers or nothing will happen.
In a release prior to the event, Donley wrote, “The purpose of the event is to start to raise awareness and bring our community together to push back at discriminatory laws, policies and attitudes that have contributed towards the mass incarceration, disenfranchisement and generational economic disparity of people of color (at a rate significantly worse than that that of South Africa during the height of Apartheid). Quietly without much fanfare we are on the verge of becoming a society that creates a permanent lower economic caste. Morals aside, seeing as that lower caste constitutes 1\4 of Saint Petersburg that poses a severe financial and social threat to all of us.”