Once again, images of squirming infants struggling to hold on to their first minutes of life and stories of newborns shaking from withdrawal in neonatal intensive care units have reclaimed media attention. It seems history is repeating itself as outlets from the New York Times to Time to the Associated Press have revisited one of the few subjects that cuts to the quick of the nation's "family values" rhetoric: babies who have been exposed to drugs in utero.
A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number U.S. babies born with signs of opiate drug withdrawal has tripled in a decade, a finding that's in line with evidence of an upsurge in abuse of prescription drugs. These infants have been characterized as the 21st-century version of the 1980s "crack baby" epidemic, which swept the country at the height of the war on drugs. But many contend that comparison is irresponsible because it ignores the racialized and pejorative rhetoric of that era, specifically the inherent implication that the term refers to a black baby.
"The 'crack baby' is a black baby," Dorothy Roberts, a law and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told The Huffington Post. "The very creation of the notion of the crack baby depends on the baby being black -- they go hand in hand."
According to the most recent CDC data, whites abuse prescription drugs at a rate about 12 percent higher than African Americans. Although only a slight disparity, prescription drug abuse is traditionally viewed as an activity concentrated in white, suburban neighborhoods, as opposed to crack-cocaine, which is presumed to be abused primarily in black, urban communities. Roberts said this difference in race, class and choice of drug is precisely what influences the language and tone of the conversation surrounding infants and their mothers.
"There's a very starkly different approach to prescription drug use that may harm children," Roberts said. "That is treated with much more sympathy and with some concern about the humanity of the mother and the mother's needs. There was absolutely no concern about the mothers who smoked crack during pregnancy. The mainstream media's approach to black women with substance abuse problems was completely punitive and vilifying, and it was as if these women weren't even human beings."
Meghan Ralston, Harm Reduction Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, agreed with this analysis, adding that although the choice to take drugs while pregnant conflicts with widespread social mores, the differences in race and class influence society's tolerance of mothers and their sometimes questionable choices.
"In the case of those black children in the crack baby epidemic, it was very easy for us to demonize the mothers primarily because they were low-income black women," Ralston said. "In the case of white women delivering white babies exposed to drugs, that same level of fear and paranoia isn't there. We don't hate those women quite as much, because there's not that racist element that's driving it.”
"The whole response to the so-called crack baby epidemic was completely punitive," Enid Logan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, told The Huffington Post. "The response was all about punishment -- punishing [black mothers] for their transgressions, rather than trying to get them help or trying to solve the problem."
While the government and Child Protective Services take action in any case of infant exposure to a controlled substance, regardless of the drug, Roberts said black women are disproportionately subject to government intervention.
"Several studies have shown that black women are more likely to have their newborns removed by CPS for illegal drug use during pregnancy than white women," she said. "A recent study shows that it takes more risk for social workers to remove white children from their homes than black children, because it's all within this context of the notion that black people have some kind of innate problem that can't be fixed."
Both Roberts and Ralston agreed that the panic associated with the 1980s "crack baby" is missing from today's conversation. Present-day coverage of newborns with opiate drug withdrawal syndrome does not imply that they are a rising generation of criminals and violent predators, and race is a major reason why, Roberts said.
"The story is different, not because the lesson has been learned," Logan said. "But the profile of the woman or the user is different, and the kinds of social questions that this concern is responding to are therefore very different. I have not been able to get a grasp on what the social questions are yet, but they're not at all the same ones that generated the crack baby narrative."
The differences between current debates about neonatal withdrawal and that of the 1980s are reflected in the conversation about newborns experiencing opiate withdrawal. In addition to the media attention, the federal government has also taken notice of the surge in prescription drug abuse and the increasing number of children affected by it.
The Office of National Drug Policy held a leadership meeting on Aug. 30 to discuss how to address the needs of maternal addicts and opioid-exposed infants, but Ralston said the issue is being both overblown and mishandled in a fashion similar to approaches to the "crack baby" epidemic.
But some medical professionals said they are seeing proof of the numbers in their own hospitals. Maureen Shogan, a neonatal clinical nurse specialist in Spokane, Wash., said she has personally witnessed the effects of the country's drug fads over the course of her career.
Shogan has cared for newborns affected by various controlled substances, from heroine in the 1970s to crack-cocaine in the '80s to methamphetamines in the '90s and the opiates of today. She said the number of infants experiencing opiate withdrawal in her hospital's neonatal intensive care unit is staggering.
"I would not say it's overblown by any means," Shogan told The Huffington Post. "When we have anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of our babies being exposed, this doesn't feel right."
Ralston said she hopes lessons learned from the gaps in the media coverage of the "crack baby" era will help society be more mindful in the current conversation around neonatal withdrawal syndrome.
"The one good thing that we have on our side today is that we have learned about what the actual facts were around that whole media craze," she said. "The research is clear: We got it wrong. It's been 20 years and we didn't see that, we didn't lose an entire generation."
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs Sept. 4 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
Texas Undertakes Innovative Reforms
In Texas, a projection showed that the number of inmates would outnumber the number of available inmate beds by about 17,000 in 2007. Having decided to forgo building new facilities, the state instead sent nonviolent offenders to community-based mental health and addiction treatment programs. The state also boosted the number of re-entry programs offered to released prisoners, in hopes of decreasing recidivism rates. As a result, taxpayers saved millions of dollars, while the state closed its second oldest prison Sugarland in 2011, making it the first prison to be closed in Texas history. During this time, the outstanding crime rate in Texas also dropped to its lowest point in decades. Prior to this renovation, Texas demonstrated a radical move in 2003 when <a href="http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/smartreformispossible_web.pdf" target="_hplink">Governor Rick Perry signed into law a bill</a> that mandated probation and drug treatment for first-time, low-level drug offenders in place of jail. Perry also pardoned 35 African-Americans unfairly convicted of drug offenses in the landmark Tulia case that same year. This highly publicized case spurred several reforms to the state's criminal system, including legally prohibiting racial profiling by police officers.
South Carolina Scales Back With Bipartisan Support
In answer to South Carolina's swelling prison population and costs, the state passed S. 1154, a law that ushered in several, progressive reforms to South Carolina's drug sentencing in 2010. Originally advocated by the state's Sentencing Reform Commission, the reforms included eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession, as well as abolishing the highly protested sentencing disparities for crack and cocaine possession. The state also granted judges the ability to enforce non-prison sentencing, such as work release, good conduct and probation, at the their own discretion.
Ohio Overhauls State's Drug Sentencing
In another instance of bipartisan reform, Republican and Democrat legislators joined to find a solution to Ohio's rising prison population and costs. Through analyzing various factors, officials discovered the largest setbacks, which included high recidivism rates amongst low-level crime offenders who lacked the support of re-entry programs or other supervision. The report of the findings also showed disorganization within the state's probation system. Overwhelming support from Ohio's Republican legislators ultimately resulted in the passing of a law in 2011 that reduced drug sentences and juvenile incarceration rates and expanded parole. "I don't want anyone to think we've lost discipline," <a href="http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2011/06/ohio_gov_john_kasich_signs_sen.html" target="_hplink">Gov. John Kasich told Celeveland.com</a>. "You do bad. . . We're locking you up. But for someone that wants to do better, we're giving you a chance." A great deal of drug sentencing reforms were consequently enacted, including reducing mandatory minimum sentences for hash and marijuana offenses, ordering non-jail alternatives for misdemeanor offenses and nonviolent low-felony offenses. To better organize and inform probation departments, the law also offered financial incentives to those agencies that saw a reduced recidivism rate.
Kentucky's Task Force Leads to Major Changes
Kentucky's harsh drug sentencing in the 1980s lead to a dramatic increase in the state's prison population, due to a spike in arrest and the long sentences given to those convicted of felony drug possession. <a href="http://www.pewstates.org/research/analysis/2011-kentucky-reforms-cut-recidivism-costs-85899380803" target="_hplink">According to Pew Center on the States</a>, Kentucky's prison population experienced a growth of 45 percent, compared to the national rate of 13 percent. Legislators were initially hesitant to reform sentencing, however, when faced with a looming budget crisis they launched the bipartisan Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act in 2010. On the recommendation of the Task Force, the House almost-unanimously passed a reform law in March 2011. The law's softening of harsh drug sentencing resulted in judges' discharging individuals without bail for low-level drug crimes that could end in probation and granting judges room to enforce treatment for felony possession of drugs other than marijuana. Additional mandates include lowering the maximum for possession or trafficking drugs from five years to three and making the simple possession of marijuana a low misdemeanor.
New Jersey Makes Historic Move With New Law
<a href="http://www.pewstates.org/projects/stateline/headlines/with-governors-signature-new-jersey-expands-drug-courts-85899406300" target="_hplink">Governor Chris Christie signed a bill in July 2011</a> making New Jersey the first state to require drug treatment for certain offenders. Having received bipartisan support, the bill enacts treatment instead of than incarceration for drug-abusers convicted of non-violent crimes. "I'm a believer in this, because I've seen it happen," Christie said at a press conference on the new law. "I watched miracles happen every day....I watched over a period of a year people reclaim their lives and become productive members of society." Like many states, New Jersey has accepted voluntary drug courts as a way of decreasing a rising amount of reoffenders. While the state has seen a drastic decrease in recidivism rates for program graduates, the voluntary nature of the program has faced criticism. Under Florida's new law, judges, not offenders, have the ultimate say as to whether or not they receive treatment, so filtering out those with true addictions becomes difficult.