05/21/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

To Offset Disaster Relief, Curb the Drug War (VIDEO)

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) says federal aid to his home state after the tornado should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. We'll see how well the ideological integrity holds up if offsets aren't quickly found, but nevertheless, the question of how to fund disaster relief is increasingly urgent. It arose late last year when Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. And though we cannot know whether man-made climate change was specifically responsible for either of those acts of nature, we do know federal spending to cope with extreme weather events has been rising. Indeed, from 2011 to 2013, the federal government has spent $136 billion on disaster relief.

One area of spending that Americans from left to right are willing to cut is incarceration and the War on Drugs. According to a 2012 poll, 82 percent of Americans believe the country is losing the drug war, and a plurality say we should be spending less money on it. In another survey, voters overwhelmingly contend we should save money by shifting nonviolent offenders from prison to cheaper alternatives involving rehabilitation. Groups such as Right on Crime and Justice Fellowship demonstrate that many conservatives are now rethinking criminal justice policy. And of course, progressive organizations have long been beating that drum.

There is plenty of federal money to be saved. To start, President Obama's latest budget contains $8.5 billion for prisons and detention. With about half of all federal inmates locked up explicitly for drug offenses (never mind for the collateral consequences of prohibition, including black market violence), that's a hefty chunk of change being spent by the federal government on drug-related incarceration. Obama's proposed budget also allocates $25.6 billion to fighting the drug war through law enforcement, interdiction, international operations, and other means. These are substantial federal investments in an approach to criminal justice that most Americans no longer believe in.

Counting state and local appropriations paints an even bleaker picture of our spending priorities. As of 2007 -- the last year for which data is available -- the United States spends a massive $228 billion annually on cops, courts, and corrections. Much of that money goes toward arresting, prosecuting, and locking up nonviolent offenders. As a result, our country has become the incarceration capital of the world. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, we have nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners. That gives us the highest rate of incarceration and the highest number of prisoners -- besting Russia, China, and all the rest.

Money aside, there is something fundamentally unfair about how our criminal laws are applied. Given that this year is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, we would do well to reflect on the vast racial inequalities that have only gotten worse when it comes to the justice system. Consider that blacks, whites, and Latinos use and sell drugs at about the same rate. Yet people of color are far more likely to be arrested for drugs; once arrested, they're more likely to be prosecuted; and once prosecuted, they get longer sentences. In all, two thirds of the people incarcerated for a drug offense are black or Latino even though those two groups make up less than a third of the U.S. population.

This trend of mass incarceration has had sweeping consequences. Millions of formerly incarcerated people have vastly diminished economic prospects. Millions of children have a parent behind bars. And people of color have borne the brunt of the unequal application of our nation's criminal laws.

So as we figure out where to come up with more money for disaster relief, here's one question we face: Would we rather spend billions on rebuilding lives and communities destroyed by natural disasters, or billions on a criminal justice system that is itself destroying lives and communities?

It's not like taking money out of the justice system would be inherently bad for public safety. There are numerous cost-effective alternatives to mass incarceration that would free up money for things like disaster relief. Beyond Bars' new video, produced in partnership with the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, explores those options:

Policymakers hoping to find meaningful offsets to fund disaster aid or any other initiative will have look at three things: 1) Where there's a lot of money, 2) where the spending is unjustifiable, and 3) where the politics and public opinion are conducive to allowing cuts, since there are very few areas in which that's true. Mass incarceration and the drug war meet all three criteria. They just might be the only areas of spending that do.

Sen. Coburn and other politicians who insist on offsets for increases in spending should look anew at America's approach to criminal justice. It's perhaps our best option for making such cuts a reality.

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