President Obama recently announced that he would reduce the sentences of 22 prisoners imprisoned for drug-related infractions. The administration concluded that these sentences reflected an "outdated sentencing regime," recognizing that drug-sentencing laws are illogical, unjust and ineffective. The announcement publicly acknowledged that such sentencing laws are racially biased. While previous commutations were aimed at white-collar criminals, Obama's new list targets low-income African-Americans imprisoned for crack-related convictions.
This announcement is welcome news for proponents of drug policy reform. Drug-related incarceration is a multi-billion dollar industry that does nothing to reduce violence, drug use, or improve society. Today, I count myself among these proponents. But for years, I was not in favor of legalizing drugs. After taking too many DARE classes to heart, I thought it was morally wrong that a government could condone harmful drug use. If someone uses a harmful illegal drug, I thought, they should go to jail. It seems counterintuitive -- how would legalizing drugs make drug use less of a problem?
My logic had a fundamental error, however. I assumed that drug laws were applied fairly. But drug-related incarceration has little to do with the risks of recreational drug use, and everything to do with keeping the systems in place that fuel violence, systemic racism, the cycle of poverty, and the prison pipeline.
In high school, I read the book Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, a bestseller about a father who watches his bright, wealthy son from Marin County go from prep school to meth addiction. This book uses the common but tragic trope of the kid who has it all, starts doing drugs, and throws it all away. Beautiful Boy chronicles the horrors of drug addiction and its impact on his family, as son Nic goes from golden boy to college dropout, disappearing for weeks at a time, stealing from his family, and hospitalized repeatedly.
As a 14-year-old growing up in Marin County, I did not know anything about drug addiction other than the grisly details I read about in this book or watched in Requiem for a Dream or listened to on Amy Winehouse albums. With this as my only exposure, I concluded that there was no excuse for making drugs legal and thereby condoning their use.
But I was only seeing the issue as it related to privileged white suburban kids like myself. I saw drug use as the product of choice and availability -- that if they had been harder to access, or more strictly enforced, then their victims would never have touched the substances that became their downfall. My reasoning, that drugs needed to be prohibited for the good of public safety, failed to recognize that when it comes to drug criminalization and incarceration, there is no semblance of an even playing field.
I learned later that for the vast majority of people incarcerated for drug-related crimes, the consequences of drug use do not reflect individual choice, but rather the racially biased system that disproportionately stigmatizes, convicts and incarcerates low-income drug offenders of color. This system assigns a different rhetoric to white drug users and treats them vastly differently, setting odds against drug users of color far beyond the challenges of drug addiction recovery.
While wealthy white kids can pay off fines, afford private rehab, and access resources that might help them lead normal lives in recovery, Black kids charged with the same crimes go to prison. According to Michelle Alexander's 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, black men are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from 20 to 57 times greater than that of white men. Alexander writes, "People of color are convicted of drug offenses at rates out of all proportion to their drug crimes, a fact that has greatly contributed to the emergence of a vast new racial undercaste." Although the majority of illegal drug dealers nationwide are white, three-quarters of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are Black or Latino.
The disparity between sentencing laws for crack cocaine and powder cocaine have come under more scrutiny in the past few years. Media frenzy at the onset of the War on Drugs framed crack as an urban (read: Black) street drug, while powder cocaine, a more expensive drug, is more strongly associated with the world of Hollywood and Wall Street (read: white people). Even though the drugs are chemically identical, until 2010, federal laws punished crack offenses one hundred times more severely than offenses involving powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act aimed to reduce this disparity, but crack offenses are still punished 18 times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. While 22 sentence commutations for crack-related offenses publicize and acknowledge this injustice, they certainly do not have the capacity to rectify the consequences of over 30 years of grossly unequal sentencing laws.
On top of battling addiction, Black drug users and dealers contend with prison sentences that bar them from treatment and accessing resources vital to their continued recovery and successful reentry after their sentences. Federal laws make it nearly impossible for people who have served time to receive federal welfare funding, public housing, and driver's licenses -- sometimes even rescinding their very right to vote. The idea of prison as punishment has mutated into a lifetime of punishment. According to Jeremy Travis in the book But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, "punishment for the original offense is no longer enough; one's debt to society is never paid." Thanks to drug sentencing laws, unequal resources, and outright discrimination, the only way to escape this ongoing debt, it seems, is by having enough money to make bail and hire an expensive lawyer, or by being white.
Drug addiction is a tragedy in any form, and recovery is a lifelong process. But when we talk about the tragedy of white, wealthy people becoming drug addicts, we are missing a larger part of the story. However you feel about recreational drug use, the truth is that drug prohibition allows the prison system to profit from gross discrimination, and opposing legalization for personal, moral reasons is reactionary, sublimating the larger issue. Legalizing drugs is a step toward promoting policies that would uphold, rather than undermine, the justice in criminal justice.
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