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COLUMN

The Inequality of Law Enforcement

Zareena Hussain

On Monday, the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety announced the resounding success of Operation CLEAN (Coordinated Law Enforcement Apprehension Now) Sweep in identifying 361 welfare recipients in New York City who were, in fact, wanted on outstanding warrants in Massachusetts. Of those, 21 were identified as violent offenders and fugitives from the law. The rest were taken off welfare rolls until they can clear up a slew of default warrants and other criminal charges. Eleven fugitives were brought to the Bay State yesterday.

While we should applaud what is notable as an example of actual government efficiency, the raids should raise once again the debate over whether laws in this land are equally enforced. Reading Tuesday morning’s news, you can’t help but get the feeling that if you are a poor minority in the land of opportunity, you aren’t getting a fair shake.

Looking at the truncated list of those offenders labeled ‘most dangerous’ in newspapers and on local television, all bear Hispanic names. Chances are that similar statistics hold true for the hundreds taken off the welfare roles.

Scarce were the details on the charges against the rest of those taken off welfare roles in New York.

My guess: The rest of those taken off welfare rolls are probably guilty of minor drug offenses or larceny and, as stated by law-enforcement officials, not worthy of being brought to Massachusetts.

Of the fugitives brought to the Bay State Monday, Massachusetts Public Safety secretary Jane Perlov told reporters, “These are the worst of the worst.” But the rest of them are more likely the weakest of the weak. Targeting welfare rolls is yet another card in the deck stacked against the poor and unfortunate.

You can hardly fault law-enforcement officials for enforcing the laws, but when crime is decreasing nationwide, it is time to have an honest dialogue about the correlation between poverty and crime. We must also have an honest dialogue about the crimes that go unpunished, especially drug offenses, when committed by the well-to-do.

The gap is startling. Rumors of youthful drug abuse keep presidential hopeful George W. Bush in the spotlight of Campaign 2000, while Al Gore is criticized (if he is ever mentioned at all) for his own boring youth. Remember -- any press is good press.

New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson’s admission of drug abuse in his youth has put him in the national spotlight for being the highest-ranking elected official in the country to call for an open debate on the decriminalization of drugs. His stance has garnered him appearances on Sunday morning talk shows.

Somehow, the sense of fairness is lost. While random searches of young black and Hispanic men continue in New York City, and the New Jersey police have admitted to racial profiling, our nation’s elected officials are reaping the benefits of youthful indiscretion.

“I think they are arrogant and brazen, and when it comes to money, they will take extra risks,” said Lt. Kevin Horton, of the Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section.

But perhaps what is most brazen is the lack of any admission or even recognition that in fact laws, especially drug laws, unfairly target minorities. This has been true at least since the early 1900s, when marijuana became criminalized after it grew in popularity among African-Americans; in more recent years, legislatures have enacted higher mandatory penalties for using crack (more popular with poor addicts) in comparison to using cocaine, which is preferred by upper-middle-class and upper-class offenders.

Now is the time, when we once again can feel relatively safe walking down the street, that we must pay attention to those who are the most downtrodden despite a booming economy. We must pay attention to them if we are ever truly able to lay claim to a great society.