Just Say No to the War on Drugs
Ever since President Nixon proclaimed the start of a War on Drugs some 40 years ago, prison populations in this country have grown far faster than the population as a whole. The United States now incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world, largely due to laws related to this “war”. Last week, while Congress continued its extended summer siesta, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some initiatives in the prosecution of the War on Drugs that may signal a significant shift in our criminal justice system in coming years.
In addition to the fact that our prisons are holding more prisoners per capita than any other nation, our judicial system has resulted in a situation where those incarcerated are dramatically over-representative of minority groups and poor people. Increasing evidence of discriminatory prosecution and sentencing that results in longer sentences for relatively minor and non-violent crimes is being seen by many as unfair to the prisoners, costly to taxpayers and counterproductive overall in terms of reducing crime and alleviating the perceived national drug problem.
Much of the legislation related to drug-related crimes appears to be discriminatory to people of color and those living in poverty, judging by the prison statistics. Inordinate numbers of racial minority group members tend to serve longer sentences for crimes which are often victimless. Strict marijuana laws are one example of this, as well as the huge disparity in sentences meted out for possession of various amounts of crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. Serving prison sentences rather than receiving treatment for drug-dependence is often more costly to taxpayers and does little to alleviate the problem of recidivism once terms have been completed. Convicted felons face additional hardships in finding employment upon completion of sentences. Having more potential breadwinners in prison means more children living in one parent homes or foster care – in poverty. States which have three-strikes rules also end up sentencing people to life sentences which are obviously excessive when compared to the severity of their crimes.
The proposals unveiled by Holder could mean an easing of the policies and practices which have resulted in our bloated prison population. Americans, as far as I can determine, are no more deserving of involuntary incarceration than citizens of other countries. That our laws and policies so blatantly discriminate against racial and ethnic minorities as well as those at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder is appalling. The whole nature of our current justice system serves to further exacerbate already an existing inequality of income and future opportunities for advancement among broad expanses of our society People become disenfranchised politically in many states, as well. Many felons find they still may not be able to vote despite having paid their debt to society by serving their prison terms.
The whole War on Drugs has been a humongous waste of resources and lives without seeming to accomplish much of anything in terms of reducing the use of illegal drugs or the damage that dependence on them causes, both to those using them and to those affected by the users. The supplies of drugs do not seem to have dried up. Militarizing the war in countries such as Mexico and Columbia has not seemed to work. Drug cartels and gangs continue to proliferate at home and abroad, in some cases exhibiting more powerful than the governments that rule them. Prohibition of some of these drugs seems to parallel the failed prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. during part of the 20th century. Some states have begun easing restrictions on marijuana, and many have even legalized it for medicinal purposes, but they have also often found themselves at odds with a federal government which adamantly opposes any lessening of its opposition to the drug. Holder made no attempt to address the issue of marijuana legalization, but that is not his job. The laws regarding this need to be addressed by Congress before real lasting change can occur on this issue.
Changes to sentencing guidelines and policies regarding how drug-related offenses are to be handled by the judicial system should ease much of the prison crowding and alleviate some of the dysfunctional nature of our current prison system. Cost-cutting measures like prison privatization will only make matters worse if trends continue. Prisons, like schools, have a social value that should not be based on how much profit they can gain some private corporation. They are meant to serve society as a whole, not merely corporate stockholders, and the wellbeing of prisoners as well as students as human beings needs to be foremost. There are currently two county judges where I live serving prison terms for taking kickbacks for sending kids to a private juvenile facility to keep it sufficiently occupied. Is it any wonder why private prison companies want more, not fewer, prisoners? We currently spend far more per person to incarcerate people in this country than to educate them. That situation should be reversed.
Ruining the lives of young poor people for possessing a small quantity of a relatively harmless substance while allowing supposedly fine upstanding people to use their wealth, power and political influence to live in luxury while decimating the economy and taking away others’ livelihoods, homes and health is not how a just society operates. Turning the tide of a War on Drugs that has been a failure for decades and caused more harm than good for society as a whole would be a good start to alleviating some of the problems faced by our prison system and society as a whole.
The actions proposed by the Attorney General, along with the decision last week regarding the racial profiling practiced under New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy are only a beginning. More rational and humane drug policy at federal, state and local levels are a must in order to maintain momentum. Conditions in our prisons must be improved. That can only happen if we use a more fair system for determining how to deal with acts that so many no longer feel should be illegal. As the case with marriage equality has seen great strides in the recent past, much of the drug war must become a thing of the past so that the entire nation’s prisons do not become like the California system, where judges are ordering the release of prisoners to alleviate overcrowding which has reached the level of cruel and unusual punishment. Something is wrong somewhere in the system when you can’t adequately house and care for all the people you seem to feel do not deserve to live freely.
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