On March 15th, the Indianapolis Star ran a headline: "U.S. Poised to Become Top Jailer Worldwide." The article dutifully reported the results of a study by the Sentencing Project, documenting what criminal justice professionals all know?that thanks to prosecutions for drug offenses…
On March 15th, the Indianapolis Star ran a headline: "U.S. Poised to Become Top Jailer Worldwide." The article dutifully reported the results of a study by the Sentencing Project, documenting what criminal justice professionals all know–that thanks to prosecutions for drug offenses, the United States will soon have the worlds’ highest rate of incarceration.
A few weeks before the Sentencing Project report, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives projected that by the year 2000 the number of African-American adults behind bars will reach one million. Adam Smith, Associate Director of the Drug Reform Network, writes that "At that time, roughly one in ten black men will be imprisoned. Not since the days of slavery have so many people of African descent lived in shackles. And no other nation on earth, as far as anyone can tell, is keeping so large a percentage of any ethnic or racial minority locked up in cages."
It is not exactly a secret that the drug war is being waged primarily against minority populations. Smith asks a pointed question: Would all of the elected representatives who continue to call for a tougher approach to the drug war notice if ten percent of the white population was behind bars? Would "zero tolerance" sound so sweet if the doors being kicked in, the families being broken up, the opportunities being foreclosed, the extra-constitutional tactics being employed were affecting their largely white constituencies?
Disproportionate enforcement is only one aspect of the wrong-headedness of this crusade. A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a series of articles on the effects of our ever-tougher "war" on drugs, detailing lengthy sentences meted out for relatively minor offenses, most of them nonviolent. Case in point: a mother of two small children agreed to deliver a package containing $80 of cocaine for a friend; she is serving 19 years for "dealing." Due to mandatory sentencing, drug offenders spend more time in jail (on average, 82.2 months) than do rapists (on average, 73.3 months).
In 1988, the United States Government spent 3.6 billion dollars on the drug war. This year, 1999, we will spend over seventeen billion–17.9 billion, to be exact. What has all of that spending produced? It certainly has not affected addiction rates; aside from marijuana use, which tends to fluctuate, America’s addict population has remained virtually unchanged. Worse, as sociologists and economists (notably Milton Friedman) have documented, most criminal activity stemming from drug trafficking is a direct result of prohibition. Murder and crime rates fell dramatically after repeal of alcohol prohibition; a sane drug policy would likewise give us safer streets and communities.
Drug abuse, like alcoholism and smoking, is fundamentally a public health problem. We need to treat it as a public health problem. Spending billions to throw nonviolent people in prison wastes tax dollars, distorts the criminal justice system and decimates our inner cities. It also doesn’t work.
If this is a war, we’ve lost it.