By Robyn Short
Barack Obama said on January 21, 20014, “The War on drugs has been an utter failure.” This fact is becoming increasingly apparent thanks to the important book by Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Eugene Jarecki’s brilliant documentary, The House I Live In. It is time to bring this dark period of our nation’s history to an end. The following statistics from www.DrugPolicy.org and the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet show what a failure this 50-year “war” truly is.
Drug War Statistics
The United States spends more than $51 trillion annually on the war on drugs, and yet drug usage has not reduced.
- 1.53 million people were arrested on drug-related charges in 2011.
- 757,969 people were arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2011; 87% were arrested for possession only. And yet, 18 states plus the District of Columbia allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
- 2,266,800 or 1 in every 99.1 Americans were incarcerated in 2011 in federal, state and local prisons and jails — the highest incarceration rate in the world.
- Two-thirds of imprisoned people incarcerated for a drug offense in state prisons are black or Hispanic, although these groups use and sell drugs at similar rates as whites.
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
- About 14 million whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug.
- 5 times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.
- African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
- African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
- More than 200,000 students have lost federal financial aid eligibility due to a drug conviction — these students will most likely not have access to higher education.
These statistics are devastating and indicate an intense need for change — a shift in our nation’s consciousness as it relates to how we treat one another. These following five policies, as outlined in the Ellen Baker Center for Human Rights blog, are a step in the right direction.
1. Fair Sentencing Act (“FSA”)
Currently one quarter of the nation’s prison population is serving prison time for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. Drug treatment programs cost an average $4000 versus the annual cost of $30k+ for incarceration. The Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed in 2010, reduces the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain United States federal criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. Read the Fair Sentencing Act here.
2. Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (“JSV”)
This bipartisan bill seeks to give judges flexible sentencing discretion below the mandatory minimum for all federal crimes, so long as public safety is not jeopardized as a result if the more lenient sentence. Read more here.
3. Youth PROMISE Act (HR 1318)
This legislation is another bipartisan effort designed to give communities the necessary support to invest in violence prevention and intervention programs so as to engage parents, schools, social services, law enforcement, the faith community, and advocates. Endorsed by Human Rights Watch, Justice Policy Institute, The Peace Alliance, and others the HB 1318 seeks to address root causes and implementing best practices, versus strictly punitive measures.
The Youth Promise Act will …
- Fund, implement and evaluate an array of evidence-based, locally controlled youth and gang violence prevention and intervention practices.
- Hold communities accountable by linking funding to measurable success and requiring that at least 85% of funding be spent directly on programs.
- Create a PROMISE Advisory Panel of state representatives to aid in assessing community needs and resources, developing and enforcing program evaluation standards and overseeing implementation.
- Engage a wide range of community stakeholders to serve on local PROMISE Coordinating Councils, which will develop and implement custom PROMISE Plans for their communities. The Councils will include: Community and Faith-Based Groups; Schools, Parents and Youth; Courts and Law Enforcement; Health Providers and Social Services; Nonprofit Organizations and Other Stakeholders
- Build on local strengths by partnering with colleges and universities as regional research partners, and establishes a National Research Center for Proven Juvenile Justice Practices.
- Provide support for communities to hire and train youth-oriented police officers.
Learn more about the Youth Promise Act here.
4. Clemency Review Panel in the Office of the Pardon Attorney
Stories of innocent people or people who were wrongly convicted and incarcerated due to errors in procedure and prosecutorial misconduct are becoming increasingly common. The Innocence Project estimates 50,000 to 125,000 people are currently serving prison time for crimes they did not commit. On average, a person will spend 13 years in prison before successfully proving their innocence in a court of law. However, many people serve 20 to 30 years before exoneration, and then there are those who are never exonerated.
In May 2012, the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, released its first report analyzing 873 exonerations between January 1989 and February 2012. Since then, the number of identified exonerations in the registry has grown to more than 1,050 and more are added almost daily. The report cites most common reasons for wrongful conviction are perjury or false accusation (51 percent), mistaken witness identification (43 percent) and official misconduct (42 percent).
In order to address this travesty in our justice system, resources for a clemency review panel could help to reduce these errors that destroy people’s lives and subject the system to expensive lawsuits. Learn more here.
5. Re-entry Programs
Well resourced re-entry programs such as those offered by Volunteers of America and the Prisoner Entrepreneurial Program in Texas are essential to reducing prison recidivism. In order for prisoners to successfully reintegrate into their communities, support for housing, education, employment, health and mental health access, and other forms of transition assistance need to be in place. Learn more about the Texas-bases PEP program below.
Be the change our nations needs. Support the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the #EndTheWarOnDrugs coalition by adding your name to the petition.
Robyn Short has ghostwritten numerous books and is the founder of goodmedia press and goodmedia communications. She is a student of A Course in Miracles, a self-study system of spiritual psychotherapy. Robyn is a passionate believer in peace and social justice. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Auburn University, a Masters of Liberal Arts from Southern Methodist University and will graduate with a Masters in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution from Southern Methodist University in 2014. Robyn is available for book signing and to speak on topics of peacebuilding and nonviolence, especially as it relates to these core issues. Contact Robyn by email.