Recently, I've imagined myself back in the company of the hundreds of men I met while serving six years in a NYS prison as every journalist, aspiring politician and talking head confirms the failure of our War on Drugs. Meanwhile, those declarations are met with reflexive thumb twiddling at the statement of the obvious. Over the past couple of years it has become increasingly fashionable to deride the War on Drugs, and increasingly our criminal justice system, as a national policy disgrace. Even Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States has told audiences that, "Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason." But I am confident that my friends who I left behind those walls, some of America's best and brightest, are worried like me that our collective indictment runs the risk of becoming more of a rhetorical exercise than an actionable agenda.
This isn't to say that we can't begin the process of repealing the most pernicious features of the war. Addressing and dismantling the criminalization of drug users and communities of color, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and the Obama Administration's recently announced expansion of clemency eligibility are all necessary and laudable steps towards bringing the war to a close.
But something's been lost between the chorus of Beltway wonks and talking heads decrying the economic waste of mass-incarceration and the social libertarians rallying under the battle cry of an overreaching state, and it is war's most consistent feature -- human carnage.
The problem lies in the dissonance between repealing the most overt failures of our country's longest running social war and repairing the harm done by that war. Any historian of war will tell you that the collateral consequences of engagement never limit themselves to the immediate battlefield. The legacies of war live on and compound themselves in the lives of the victims and their progeny long after the ceasefires and underestimated casualty counts. The victims of war -- both individual and collective -- must be acknowledged and given the basic ingredients necessary to create a meaningful life, lest we continue to consign entire communities to cycles of generational poverty and marginal existence under the legacies of our institutional war machine.
Perhaps the greatest impediment to addressing and redressing the generational effects of mass-incarceration is our refusal to acknowledge that our failures are generational in the first place. Our collective outrage scarcely acknowledges these policies as a long-running disaster of the American criminal justice system. It's as if our carceral policies only failed yesterday. It was a failure throughout my six years of incarceration, during which I met many other prisoner of war. Lived experience confirms that it was a failure both during their confinement and the confinement of those that preceded and followed them with tragic seamlessness. We've let slip through the cracks, or rather willfully neglected, the most grave ramification of the policymaking process: the destruction of life. The carnage, and the social conditions that precipitate it, fester and fortify in the fissures where political intention and lived reality diverge.
When the combat concludes, the prisoners of war must be freed. The United States is signatory to international treaties affirming this principle. President Obama's expansion of clemency eligibility begins this process, but it doesn't reach far enough. It isn't enough for the Obama Administration to expand the clemency process for the currently incarcerated, while refusing to acknowledge that our obsession with mass-incarceration is not only a failure today, but was a failure when thrust onto a frightened and uninformed public forty years ago.
What we require is a wholesale mass-decarceration initiative that acknowledges the traumatic generational effects on the communities we've failed. If the snowballing consensus is worth anything at all, it will codify its declaration into law. Our failures deserve the full exercise of our collective power.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Charlotte Street Films in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce excessive sentencing for those convicted of drug-related crimes. To watch a video supporting the bill, watch here. To support the bill, read here. To see all the other posts in the series, read here.