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More than 1/4 of people arrested in the U.S. are Black, approximately double the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population. Further, Black women comprise 1/3 of women serving life sentences. Clearly, anti-Black racism informs who is arrested, who is incarcerated, and the length of their sentences. The so-called “crack baby” epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s—during which babies were born to mothers who had used crack cocaine during pregnancy—speaks to the differential treatment of Black mothers. In 1989, for instance, Jennifer Clarise Johnson, a 23-year-old Black woman, was convicted for transferring cocaine to her child during the short 60 seconds between the birth and when the umbilical cord was cut. She was sentenced to drug treatment and fourteen years probation. If Johnson violated any of her probation terms, she “faced the threat of incarceration.” Johnson’s story isn’t unique. In 1992, more than 160 pregnant women faced charges for alleged drug use, 3/4 of whom were people of color. But a 1991 study by the South Carolina State Council on Maternal Infant and Child Health revealed that “high percentages of pregnant women were abusing marijuana, barbiturates, and opiates––drugs primarily used by white women.” Few of these white women faced charges. The disproportionate prosecution of Black mothers, therefore, was not exclusively motivated by desires to protect fetuses from drug use. If that were the case, white women would have suffered equal rates of prosecution. This disparity is why legal scholar Dorothy Roberts argues that drug tests are a way to punish Black women for having children. 

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