That’s how one interview subject described our War on Drugs and mandatory sentencing in Eugene Jarecki ‘s film, The House I Live In. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, but I only recently had the opportunity to see it, and I can tell you I left the screening feeling as though I had been eviscerated.
Seeing the reality of how our nation deals with issues such as poverty and race will not only shake your belief in our justice system. It will make you question the ideals of our nation.
As the film shows, our justice system has long been used to oppress certain groups by separating them, confiscating their property and concentrating (incarcerating) them. From our nation’s very beginnings, the group most notably affected by the system is African-Americans. But the system has been used against other groups, as well. For example, laws against opiates were created to punish Chinese laborers who began taking manual labor jobs away from whites in the 1800’s. Laws against cocaine were created to punish African-Americans who began taking jobs away from whites in the early 1900’s. Laws against marijuana were created to punish both African-Americans and Mexican-Americans who were taking jobs away from whites in the 1900’s.
Things actually got worse for these communities in the 1970’s.
That was when President Nixon announced the War on Drugs and directed all levels of law enforcement to attack drug use. Nixon’s war also included substantial resources for drug treatment. But that changed in the 1980’s under President Reagan. Reagan cut funding for treatment and pushed Congress to institute mandatory sentencing guidelines which forced judges to hand down draconian sentences for minor offenses. In other words, he took the ability to judge out of the hands of judges and allowed the system to more easily target African-Americans who were increasingly being displaced by layoffs in large manufacturing plants.
With the introduction of cheap crack cocaine, the laws were changed to include the so-called 100 to 1 rule – it took 100 times more powder cocaine to be charged with felony possession than crack cocaine. You see, since crack cocaine is cheaper, it tends to be used by poor African-Americans, while powder cocaine tends to be the drug of choice for upper middle-class white people. Of course, this rule led to our prisons being disproportionately filled with African-Americans. (The laws have recently been changed to a standard of 18 to 1 under the Obama administration.)
Law enforcement agencies were further encouraged to focus on drugs through laws that permitted them to confiscate property – cash, vehicles, even buildings – used in drug crimes. As a result, many police departments have begun to rely on this property in order to finance their operations. That, in turn, led to even more focus on drug crimes.
When President Clinton pushed for the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, judges were bound to level draconian sentences against people convicted of three offenses, no matter how minor the crimes. This led to so much prison overcrowding, it opened the opportunity for corporations to build and operate prison complexes at substantial profits.
Our white population was relatively unaffected by the War on Drugs, other than the occasional interruption of drug supplies and exposure to the scare tactics used by politicians to get elected. That changed with the introduction of methamphetamine. Suddenly, a large number of poor, unemployed white people became drug users and were eventually sent to prison. This created yet another source of revenue for the prison industry.
Most of the prisoners now languishing in prison on drug charges are non-violent drug users and small-time dealers. They are disproportionately minorities, even though drug use for minorities is about the same as that for white people. (According to Michelle Alexander who wrote The New Jim Crow, as many African-Americans are now in some stage of our “justice” system as there were slaves at the beginning of the Civil War!) Most prisoners come from poverty. Most grew up in deplorable circumstances. Many were unable to find jobs that would allow them to support their families. Most sought to escape their misery by resorting to the use and sale of drugs. Many have had their families torn apart, leaving children without mothers and fathers, and likely perpetuating the problem and creating future sources of income for the prison industry.
As one law enforcement officer said, “We may as well make it illegal to be poor.”
What are the consequences of our failed War on Drugs? Taxpayers are forced to pay enormous sums to house, feed and care for our prisoners. At the end of 2012, we had 1,571,013 prisoners in the US, more than any other country. We have 176 prisoners for every 100,000 of our population, surpassing every other nation on Earth, including China, Cuba and Russia.
And how much has the War on Drugs reduced drug use in the US? Zero, zip, zilch, naught, nada!
Meanwhile, we have painted ourselves into a corner. We have built entire industries upon the War on Drugs. We have police, judges, attorneys, prison guards, and corporations that rely on a steady stream of offenders to fill our courts and our prison beds. We have manufacturers dedicated to designing, developing and building weapons systems for the drug war. Even if we can elect politicians with the will to change the system, a large portion of our economy has become dependent on the system. It’s much the same as our war culture. If we ever decide to quit outspending other nations by a hundred, a thousand or a million to one to feed our bloated war machine, our economy could be devastated.
Give into our better nature and we will not only return thousands of people to their families. We will put thousands of people out of work. And what will become of those prisoners who are rightfully returned to society? Many of those who were non-violent when they entered prison have been forced to become violent in order to survive prison. How will they support themselves? Many have little education and few desirable skills. Many will be forced back into the same environment that led to their problems in the first place. Most will be unable to find a job, especially when unemployment is already high.
In order to fully address the problem, we will have to create jobs that pay a livable wage. We will have to fund treatment programs, along with education and training programs. We will have to reduce or eliminate poverty. We will have to rebuild entire communities. We will have to improve public transportation to expand the area in which these people can seek jobs. We will have to change the way we police those communities. And we will have to give judges the latitude to mete out justice…real justice.
America, land of the free? Not yet.